by Judy Calder

Judy and Bernie Calder live in Mt Pleasant, an eastern suburb of Christchurch, New Zealand, which was badly hit by the devastating earthquakes the city has endured over the past six years. Judy recalls what it has been like to live through the fear, the destruction and the uncertainty of these disasters, at times wondering where God is in all of this.

4.35 am Saturday 4 September 2010
– 7.1 magnitude

It begins with a low rumbling sound and builds up to a roaring crescendo within a few seconds. The wall behind our bed wobbles. We are awake in an instant, unsure if a truck has hit our house. Our suitcases are packed, ready to fly to Wellington to attend my brother’s special birthday. It is pitch dark and the lights won’t work. We grope around for torches. No! We’ve packed them.

We feel our way down the hallway to our garage. ‘Get in the car’, says Bernie. ‘It might be safer there.’ But the garage and the car seem very cold and unsafe. We could be trapped here.

We pad our way back to the bedroom, wide awake now and wait for morning to arrive, so we can see what’s happened. Two more massive quakes hit in quick succession. It’s terrifying.

Daylight arrives pathetically slowly. Once the sun is up, we walk around the bay to nearby Redcliffs. The shop is frantically busy – people stock up with bread and milk while the service station has queues of people. Bernie’s sister lives nearby, so we walk there and have a welcome cup of tea. They have electricity.

The earthquakes continue. ‘Expect three days of them’, say the experts. I go to our bed fully clothed for 10 nights. We’ve worked out our safe place – on the deck outside our bedroom door, but away from the house. I rush outside often as the house shakes. How I hate the nights.

My daughter texts from Europe. She and her husband are on a belated honeymoon. ‘R U OK? How is my house?’ I answer the first question, but leave the second. It takes us days to get to her house at Bexley, to the north. We see it drunkenly leaning towards the ground. The lawns are covered in liquefaction, as the soil has become saturated.

And still the quakes continue … where are you, God?

12.51 pm 22 February 2011
– 6.3 magnitude

We’re minding our two-year-old granddaughter Eva while her parents are at work. All hell breaks loose. The house jerks violently and, like a mother hen, I gather Eva up and put her under my body. The mirror on the wall crashes to the floor. She had been playing just inches from it! I grab blankets and we head outside to our ‘safe place’. This is scary. I look at the back lawn and see a sand volcano being born! Its sides rise and form a perfect cone. A spout forms and water pours out for several hours, meeting the liquefaction that now covers much of our land.

We wait for news. No phones, no radio, no TV – no connections anywhere. Eva’s parents, Darin and Anita, arrive. ‘Where’s Eva?’, they ask in panic. They smother her with love. My daughter looks at me with tears in her eyes. ‘Oh Mum, the city! It’s in chaos. People are killed, the buildings are down and the roads are full of holes.’ She tells me how she hid under her desk and got out down the stairwell as the three-storey carpark beside her collapsed.

We are all hungry, so Bernie bravely enters the intermittently shaking house and grabs a loaf of bread from the freezer, some cheese and a knife. We sit outside and enjoy the food, thankful we are alive. We decide to head to Darin and Anita’s house, thinking it may be safer on the rocky hills.

The sand for the foolish man and the rocks for the wise man was different. Here, neither sand nor rocks are safe. The ground continues to shift violently and their house shakes. We decide the whole city is unsafe. We head south to Ashburton, a rural town 100 km away, where Darin’s family has a farm. They are kindness in action when they see our distressed state and watch with horror the news on television.

Then God sends help. An email arrives and it’s from David Stolz – here is a man of God, a former district president of the LCA whom I knew vaguely, who comes in my hour of need and for two long years walks beside me. He teaches me to hang on, he prays for me and my family, he shares our long journey with his family, friends and congregations he preaches at – often reading out sections of my emails. He helps me to share and to laugh and have fun – even when the odds were very, very long.

The land heaves and groans … where are you, God?

We are staying on the other side of the city and we flee town every few months to Ashburton, Wellington (where I cover my head, so I can’t see the tall buildings), Brisbane (where I take a shopping trip but run away when I see
a three-storey mall), and Blenheim. For the next five years I don’t go higher than two storeys in any building.

One day at home I feel brave enough to clean the pantry. Sauces, pickles, broken jars and crockery litter the floor. I reach in the corner, saying a quick prayer, as I wipe up. But another big one hits and my head is stuck for a few seconds. It takes me three weeks to even look at the mess of my book collection.

There are no toilets but we cope. Eventually a portaloo appears in our street, but it’s half a kilometre away! The whole country has run out of portaloos. Thank goodness for China! They make us 900 within a few months and one is placed on our front lawn. We share it with six other houses. A strong wind blows across the bay and the portaloos on the hill fall over. We smile – it’s our first joke for a while.

We go to the local school every two days to collect water. They give out hand sanitiser and face masks. I wonder about the masks, but we soon know. That strong, warm wind dries out the water in the bay at low tide and that’s where all the raw sewage is going.

We gather in church in silence, giving support and prayer for each other.

And still the ground rumbles and roars … where are you, God?

The city has been cordoned off for months but one day is reopened. We join others in having a look. No one speaks as we walk past a deserted restaurant. Tables and chairs, cutlery, plates and food litter the floor. It feels like Pompeii. We return home in silence and don’t go back to the CBD for a couple of years. Big trucks, earth moving machines and cars add to ever-increasing cracks. I look at our bedroom ceiling and hope it doesn’t fall on me. Already we lean towards the sea.

Many Anglican brick churches have come down. Others have suffered, too. We share our building, run services throughout Sundays, open spare rooms and make new friends.

The quakes roll on. Sometimes they’re like gentle waves, rocking our house like a cradle. Others
come with the sound of a car starting and build to a resounding crescendo. But it’s the gigantic sudden lurches that scare me most.

Oh God, our help in ages past … where are you?

1.00 pm 13 June 2011 – 5.8 magnitude

This is another big, shallow one. I grab Eva and we go outside. We wait hours until the earth seems to settle. We walk along the road. But as we round the corner, it comes again. Shopkeepers run outside with customers. I’m thrown to the ground, Bernie’s on the road and Eva’s down, just beyond my reach. (I couldn’t reach her – that’s forever in my mind as tears form remembering this.) A rock as big as a car falls off the hillside and stops two lampposts away. But we help each other – the doctors, the hairdresser, the customers and the chefs.

We set off for home but our street is covered in liquefaction. We don’t know where the next sink hole is. Bernie picks up Eva, throws her over his shoulder and I follow, thinking that if he sinks down, I’ll be able to help. Unrealistic, I know.

Subscribe here to receive stories & upcoming issues in full