The three little pigs had it wrong: in an earthquake zone, you’re better off with a house of sticks than of bricks.


In a country that’s so earthquake prone,
Outside the riskiest zone
A city’s a mess
And ravaged by stress
And so many people have flown.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places. I’ve just finished a month-long assignment in New Zealand’s South Island, just outside of earthquake stricken Christchurch.

Saturday Bethany and I traveled into Christchurch and with some inhabitants who discussed their quake experiences.

The city has turned into a community of applied seismologists. Everyone knows an S-wave from a P-wave. They have embraced with understanding the geologic map under their homes and businesses.

Their vigilance doesn’t stop; they keep waiting for the next shock. The sleep deprivation has added into the post-traumatic stress. I talked about the mental health problems I’d seen amongst the relocated, the surprising and terrible amount of bipolar disorder unmasked by the ongoing stress.

After the experience, they cannot enter a room without looking for a place to duck into if a temblor hits; they want to know the location of the nearest table or door frame. They don’t like being in a room with glass or china in cupboards or breakfronts. They like to get heavy, precious, or dangerous things down on the floor where they can do the least damage and get damaged the least. They don’t like libraries, where books become deadly missiles.

And so many people have left; we had all talked with those who, having left, will never return to their home.

Yet as we sat down at a nice lunch the mood stayed light-hearted. We heard about a young man who ran out of the house when the quake started, then ran right back in because the bricks from the chimney had flown at him; the story-teller’s delivery came perfectly timed with a riotous punch line, and we all laughed.

New Zealand has earthquake building codes. Whereas Wellington builds to 1.4 of the quake-proofing standards, Christchurch, thought to be much more stable, built to a factor of .8.

The city’s inhabitants want to know two things about a quake now: the Richter scale and the depth. Each parameter holds a separate emotional connotation.

Around the table each person recounted where they’d been during the quake and what they’d done. They talked about how things had changed in the city, and they didn’t mind getting local junk mail advertising services.

Most everyone had insurance, we learned, but no company will insure the work done to repair the earthquake damage.

They told us about townhouses that collapsed the entire ground floor, but have two good-looking levels above ground.

Politics and personal grudges have delayed the rebuilding of the Art Center, an important social focus. Yet people now know their neighbors in a way they never had before.

I mentioned America’s New Madrid quake in the early 1800’s. I soon learned the difference between quakes between plates, such as in New Zealand, and those that happen within a plate, such as the one in Missouri.

In an earthquake zone, they said, watch out for underground streambeds. Build your house of wood, not brick, with foundations anchored on bedrock.

The Three Little Pigs had it wrong.

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