I had been working until quite late, 1.30 a.m. I think, and had just gone to sleep when the first quake woke me up. It was not a big one (4.2 and 3.8 on the Richter scale according to the record at 2.07 and 2.08), but enough to notice and to wonder what to think of it. Of course I know Christchurch has been hit by a serious quake and my plans for the next day include going to view some of the damage.
Then half an hour later there is another one (3.7 at 2.32). Again not very big, but now you start to think that a really big one could be in the offing. I look at the ceiling and walls of my 1-bedroom motel unit. It is on the first floor and quite new. I suspect that since it is built of light materials and recent that it should be able to withstand biggish quakes: apparently it did on September 4th, so I try to go to sleep again. And while I do, through the pillow notice a low-key rumbling: you feel something is grinding even if there are no shocks coming from it.
Breakfast was almost prepared, tea was ready, the TV in the corner was on with the news, I was just waiting for my egg to finish boiling when the 4.9 quake strikes. It is 10:30. It is immediately clear this is a much bigger one, quite an abrupt big shudder and then a few smaller ones, like heavy turbulence in an aircraft. Its dramatic effect is amplified by the fact that the TV falls silent, the light goes out and the water stops boiling. Outside I can see that everybody on the campsite is stirred, even though in a campervan or a tent you run no real risks. Of course tea splashing over the table is nothing serious and I finish my breakfast, still not overly worried.
What I only later grasped, was that, for many in Christchurch the shocks during the night were much mere traumatic. For some because it brought back the memory of September 4th, but for others, like the people I met in Kaikoura, it was even more serious. The foundations of their house were structurally damaged by that September quake and they were now anxious that these aftershocks might be the final straw for the foundations.
When I drive into town there is a mixture of normality and something special in the air; everyone is going about their business, yet the traffic lights are still not working and you know that everybody else knows that there was quite a big aftershock. That mixture persists when I get to the city centre.
The punters are happily punting on the Avon River, a quintessential lazy Sunday activity, while over the bridge people are pointing out to each other where new cracks have appeared. Some staff are huddling outside their shop or cafe, waiting for inspectors to come by and check their building and other businesses are open and trading as usual. The police have cordoned off some streets in the City Mall, but others are still open.
It is extra busy in the Coffee Culture on High Street, part of the City Mall. The two Starbucks' I tried are closed, but Coffee Culture is open, and it takes a while before I am served my espresso at my table in the centre of the place. Then a shock hits at 11:53 and another one at 12:14 that feels like a big slab hitting a hard surface and I look at others and wonder why it is that everybody, myself included, just go on doing what they are doing inside this building, while several buildings next door are already off limits. Should we not get out before the place topples in on our heads? But nobody does.
When I walk back from Manchester Street, where I have taken a few pictures of the damage of September 4th, and walk through the City Mall again, the police are clearing the rest of the Mall of people and cordoning it off. Three more quakes have happened and everybody is now asked to go to the Cathedral Square for safety reasons.
By now I have picked up that the 10:30 quake was 4.9 on the Richter scale, not negligible, but far weaker than the 7.1 that caused all the damage on September 4th, and I am still a bit puzzled as to why so much damage seemed to have come from today's quakes.
The rest of my day's programme goes more or less down the drain because, except for the open air Arts Centre Market and Hagley Park, everything else is closed awaiting inspection, as are several restaurants that were happily serving customers when first arrived in town, the Coffee Culture included.
"So Christchurch is going to be swallowed up then?" It is an oblique acknowledgement of what we have all been party to. "I hope not", the petrol station attendant answers, "I have to live here". On the way back to my motel unit, I had decided to fill the tank up, to make sure that if Christchurch is swallowed up later that night, I can still get away. I don't make a pre-emptive getaway of course, after all I have already paid for my room. That said, after a few further quakes in the evening before I go to bed, I decide to don the complete pyjama outfit, so at least I will be decent when they dig me out of the rubble. I do know my priorities: coffee and decency.
The geological analysis the day after reveals that the 4.9 aftershock was relatively damaging because it was centred directly below Christchurch town centre and close to the surface. There is a very good visualisation of all the quakes that have hit the Canterbury area since the first 7.1 on September 4th (tally 4,229 to January 6th) on http://www.christchurchquakemap.co.nz/. It also shows that the 33 Boxing Day aftershocks that I vibrated with, were a spike compared with lower numbers the days before and after.