Posts Tagged ‘Christchurch’

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

June 5, 2011

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.


While I’m away, tornados and floods hit close to home

May 30, 2011

Out here I still have to worry

About my friends on the River Missouri

     In the spring flowers bud

     But the rivers run flood

And they might have to leave in a hurry.

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.  Right now I’m living in Amberley, and working the last half of a four-week assignment in Waikari, less than an hour from quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island. 

When I left Sioux City a year ago (to the day) and flew to Barrow on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, I lost my concerns about the Practice Formerly Known As Mine.  I took a vacation from my worries. 

People on the North Slope might know about world events, but hold more interest in the whale harvest, Nalukaataaq, and the Fourth of July Parade.  Barrow ceased being the middle of nowhere and became, in my mind, the center of the universe.

I have never been able to control world events, and during my travels I started to take more interest in the happenings on the ground around me. 

The big September temblor in Christchurch made headlines last year at a time when I didn’t have New Zealand firmly on my radar, and I noted it only in passing.  I heard about the big quake in February, when I returned to Barrow, and took a ribbing from the hospital staff about my goals.  At the time, I didn’t know Christchurch’s status as the largest city on the South Island, nor did I appreciate the difference between the two islands.

American news interests me less now that I’m in New Zealand, and I’ve taken a growing interest in Kiwi doings, following, for example, the schism in the Maori Party that formed the Mana Party and the ongoing problem with the Christchurch rebuild.

I still take an eight-hour break from worrying every night (except call) because my cell phone doesn’t work reliably. 

Not that I’ve ever been able to solve world problems but when I measure my distance from hotspots in thousands of miles, I give them less energy.

Some American news can’t be ignored; the Joplin tornado story rated front page status here.  That twister struck literally too close to home.  I shake my head and I think about the Midwest.  Tornado season hasn’t come close to peaking yet.   This summer could set some terrible records.

Today I heard about rising waters on the Missouri River, threatening an upscale town close to my house.  I have good friends living there who, under orders from the governor, have moved out their personal belongings and sandbagged their homes, staying alert for an evacuation order. 

Via the Internet we have offered our Midwest home to those who need it.   There’s a big difference between problems you can do something about and problems you can’t.

A year to the day, and the world didn’t end.

May 21, 2011

The moment is now and right here

It’s something precious and dear

     I journeyed because

     Of a non-compete clause

Now, to the day, it’s a year. 

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical while my non-compete clause expires and I dance back from the brink of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places. Right now I’m living in Amberley and working in Waikari, less than an hour from quake stricken Christchurch in New Zealand’s North Island.

Contrary to predictions, the world didn’t end today.  The earth’s destruction was supposed to start with earthquakes in New Zealand.

Christchurch suffered a large earthquake in September 2010.  The following February, a less powerful, closer temblor ripped the heart out of the city.

Geologists say that buildings near a fault line should anchor on bedrock, but Christchurch’s founders built on swampland, and the city rose on saturated soil.  If you shake dirt enough it acts less like a solid and more like a liquid, in proportion to its water content, and Cantabrians still talk about the stink of liquefaction.

Over tea at the clinic the nurses casually mention shattered heirloom china and crystal; they smile when they recount seeing cupboard doors open after the first quake and nothing broke

Yesterday two of my patients announced plans to return to Christchurch, asking for medication enough till they re-establish with a new doctor.

Nobody mentions the half-dozen GPs who died when the TV building collapsed around them; most have forgotten.


Three hundred and sixty-five days ago I walked out of The Clinic Formerly Known as Mine.  I worked there twenty-three years.

The decision to leave did not come lightly.  You don’t work for a couple of decades in one place without putting down roots. 

I was dancing on the edge of burnout.  I didn’t realize how close I’d come till I went back and read my posts from the spring of 2010.  But Bethany knew, and she supported me completely throughout this odyssey.

When I signed on with my old outfit my contract specified that I couldn’t work as a family practitioner within 30 miles of Sioux City’s city limits for one year.  That paragraph, enforceable when I signed it, would not hold up in twenty-first century Iowa court.

Still, I am a man of my word.  And if the desire to slow down provided my motivation for my career change, it made no sense to move straight across town and have my patients follow me.

I picked the best time in history to go walkabout.  The world has never been safer nor more prosperous; information, transportation, goods, and food have never had such quality and accessibility.

None of my original plans worked out, and I have learned that I have more fun with my second choice than my first, and to enjoy the moment that I have.

Today we walked around Amberley in perfect weather, with gloriously clear blue skies and bright sun.  Our dessert out reminded us of our wedding cake.  We have reveled in our second honeymoon.  We didn’t plan it that way.

A day at the beach, the winery, and shopping in the aftermath of disaster

May 17, 2011

Really, this day is a peach

With a winery well within reach

     In the wake of the quake

     Please make no mistake

We started off down at the beach

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to avoid burnout, while my one-year non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Right now I’m living in Amberley, and seeing patients in Waikari, in New Zealand’s South Island, an hour outside of Christchurch

Kiwis in general have a healthy, laid back approach to life.  New Zealanders value hard work and maintain a strong work ethic, but appreciate their time off.  Most New Zealand doctors don’t work five days a week.  For the majority of physicians, a full schedule means an entire day off during the week, which balances a night on call.  At the clinic where I covered in the North Island, half the docs worked part-time at three days weekly. 

I get Tuesdays off here. 

We slept in till the day lightened, breakfasted leisurely and set out for an olive grove, which we found closed, so we went to the ocean.

Amberley sits close enough to the sea to have its own beach.  The Pacific stretched unblemished out to the east.  We walked on grey sand and over accumulations of pebbles and fist-sized rocks.  We had strong winds, bright sun, and mild temperatures, with the southern hemisphere marching through autumn with five more weeks till winter.

We drove into Rangiora for lunch and grocery shopping.  A bustling suburb of Christchurch, we found well-stocked stores, smiling people, and lots of traffic.

In the afternoon we returned to Amberley and a tasting at the Mud House Winery.  Bethany sampled, I drove.

We don’t drink much, but New Zealand has world-famous wines, and we’re struggling to learn more.  Bethany tried two Pinot Gris and two Riesling vintages which left her (unsophisticated) palate underwhelmed.  I learned that the marc (the grape skins and seeds) quiets the domesticated red deer stags, making them more tractable.  We talked to our sommelier about the outstanding menu; she advised us to make a “booking” (= reservation) because, in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, more people make the journey to dine on Sunday.

The aftershocks still rock the region; the public emotions remain far from recovery.

The coroner dealt heartrending news to the public yesterday, issuing eleven death certificates when no bodies could be found in the wake of the recent disaster.  After the earthquake, a man made an emergency call pleading for help.  With emergency systems overwhelmed, the operator took the names and conditions of the people he was trapped with.  Two hours later a call to the number went straight through to voice mail; text messages to the same number received no return.

Fire ripped through the area; if human remains came to light, neither DNA nor dental records could help.  Yet the coroner could piece together the movements for all eleven missing.

Yet life goes on around Christchurch, though the heart of the city collapsed in a massive earthquake on February 22.

Christchurch in the aftermath of the earthquake, and points south

May 14, 2011

Dunedin has quite a hill

Not every car has the mill

   To get to the top

   For the slope has drop

Of 30 percent, that’s a thrill. 

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the brink of burnout, while my one-year non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  My current assignment is in Waikari, an hour outside of Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island.

I see patients in Waikari who left Christchurch in the aftermath of the earthquake, and I’m helping them deal with the stress.  Some need words, others skills, but I write a significant number of prescriptions for antidepressants, sleeping pills, and anxiety medications.  An earthquake followed by hundreds of deaths and an evacuation to the countryside with subsequent crowding does nothing to improve limited emotional resilience.

We traveled south to Christchurch in the dark, finding the highway to the city center marked CLOSED.  We drove on through the night.  Bethany and I talked about the worst rain we’d seen (Sandhills of Nebraska, summer 1986) and the worst fog (Lookout Mountain 1988) for comparison.  We stopped in Oamaru.

We arrived in Dunedin (dun EE din) after breakfast in Palmerston. 

We tried to visit the world’s southernmost synagogue, but found it closed.

Dunedin sports the world’s most photographed railway station. 

The railroad station in Dunedin, at one time the busiest in the country

I found it a little ornate for the small volume of rail traffic it handles, but beautiful and dramatic in the midday lighting.

Theauthor in the Dunedin train station

We walked east through the city center.  At two-thirty, crossing the street, Bethany spotted sushi take out.  I could read the CLOSED sign which she couldn’t, but she saw patrons at the street window.  We bought discounted salmon sushi, and they threw in a chicken roll for free.  They closed and locked the window as we walked away.    

We knew when we entered the University of Otago, the oldest in New Zealand.  College buildings maintain a distinctive architecture world-wide.  We ate our sushi and watched skate boarders jump over a soda pop can.

No visit to Dunedin would be complete without a trip to Baldwin Street, which the Guinness Book of World Records lists as the steepest street in the world. The hill’s worst gradient comes to 1 in 2.86, a 35% grade.  Signage at the bottom warns NO EXIT, NO TURNS.  The place resembles San Francisco’s Lombard Street on Viagra.

World's steepest street:  Baldwin Street, Dunedin

  We parked at the bottom and walked up.   Then we loooked down.

Looking down Baldwin Street

This street really belongs to the people; cars struggle to the top and some don’t make it.  Once there, turning around comes with difficulty and the descent shortens brake life.  Of course, the top wouldn’t be the top without another famous narrow Kiwi driveway extending upwards.

In the late afternoon we decided against trying to get to Invercargill, two and half hours further south, and turned around to head towards Moeraki.

Fifteen million years ago, calcite precipitated around nuclei under unique circumstances, resulting in boulders a meter and a half in diameter.  Harder than the surrounding mudstone, wave action erodes them from the bluff and brings them down the beach.  As the sun set, the moon rose, the temperature dropped, and tourists walked along the strand.

Due to technical difficulties, further photographs will be uploaded at a later time.

A day off, earthquakes, and the hot springs at Hanmer

May 10, 2011

There wasn’t much fuss we could make,

We didn’t see anything break.

     The large Richter number

     Mattered not to our slumber

We slept right through the earthquake

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical avoid burnout, while my one-year non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  After four weeks in Wellsford, on the North Island of New Zealand, I just arrived at my new assignment.

Bethany and I slept through an earthquake last night.

I’ve felt earthquakes twice.  On a trip back to Wyoming, my hunting buddy stepped on the epicenter of a 4.5 Richter quake; at the time I was in the bathroom and didn’t feel like panicking.

Twenty years ago, during an evening clinic, I stood in an exam room and felt the ground twitch three times.  “Did you feel that?” I asked the patient, who hadn’t felt anything.  Nor had the nurse; my assertions of earthquake met with skepticism till the next morning, when the front page of the Sioux City Journal confirmed the temblor had hit 3.2.

Trip anticipation ruined our sleep on Friday night, and Saturday night the lights of Wellington streamed in under the curtains.  In our new apartment Sunday night, neither of us slept well.

Anticipating no work the next day, we slept deep, sound, and hard till Tuesday morning, awakening refreshed and ready for a day off.  We took our time getting going in the morning; I went for a walk on the border of the property where we’re staying.

We stopped at the Amberley Clinic on our way out of town.  Rex, the senior partner of the group, asked us if the earthquake had awakened us.

Bethany and I looked at each other, and shook our heads.  We’d slept great, we said, and asked if he were kidding.

He wasn’t.  It registered 5.4 on the Richter scale.

New Zealand’s spot on its own tectonic plate and the major fault lines that run through the country brings susceptibility to earthquakes.  Wellington receives hundreds a year, most very small.

Far from over, the aftermath and the aftershocks of the Christchurch disaster permeate the hearts and thoughts of the Kiwis.

I talked to a woman who’d been in the quake.  She described the earth rising up to meet her as she walked, then throwing her to the ground, and then everything moving in waves. 

Many people have quit the city permanently, more families will leave in the future.  The aftershocks ruin sleep, the sleep deprivation piles up, one person decides to leave and the family follows wholesale.

When the ground heaved and rolled, the dirt liquefied and flowed; malodorous muck covered driveways and sidewalks.

But without seismic tendencies, the hot springs an hour from here in Hamner wouldn’t exist.  Bethany and I went there this afternoon. 

I was soaking in the 38 degree Celsius (100.4Fahrenheit)pool and listening to the conversation around me.  One fellow had come because of peripheral neuropathy, one woman had ankylosing spondylitis.

All you need for a support group is two people with the same problem, and while we took the waters we talked about what our disease meant to each of us and how we coped with a relentlessly progressive condition.

Bipolar disease unmasked by the Christchurch earthquake

May 3, 2011

When the ground starts to tremble and shake

The people and buildings might break

     And after the panic

     A soul could go manic

In the aftermath of a big quake.

 Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical and backing from the brink of burnout, while my one year non compete clause ticks away, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently, I’m working in Matakana, on the North Island of New Zealand.

This weekend Bethany and I took a road trip north from Matakana.  Our first stop, to Bennett’s chocolate factory in Mangawai, left us euphoric.  We visited David and Ursula, who live in the area.

An electrician, David has helped a great deal in Christchurch since the earthquake on February 22.

The familiar news photos show the destroyed central business district, and fail to depict the drama and irony of the day-to-day human situation.

The temblor cut communication to the eastern suburbs; telephone, electric, sewer, water, everything.  Flying his own helicopter at his own expense initially, a local man delivered load after load of hot food to parks until the Red Cross took over (some would say they didn’t do as good a job).

Disposal of waste became an immediate problem.   Portaloos got shipped in by the thousand, but the limited supply meant some people faced a walk of a kilometer.  Fights broke out over access to basic facilities. 

Two plumbers in their early 20’s sat down in a garage, and in the course of an evening figured out how to turn five gallon (twenty liter) plastic buckets into toilets at a cost of $20 each, assembling jigs and putting together instructions.

David and his son James were asked to help with the project, mainly with obtaining the money required (by way of donation) and the organisation of the production of the emergency toilets.  In the process of assembling 4800 of the devices, David has made a few trips to Christchurch and has a lot of observations about what really happens on the ground in the wake of a disaster.

Many people have quit the city, some forever; some have left the country.  Rebuilding will require more than ten years.  Earthquakes pose immense technical barriers to sewer, gas, and water service. 

And the earthquakes haven’t ended.  Aftershocks of 5.3 on the Richter scale continue, robbing the night of peace and stealing rest from the inhabitants.  You can see it on their faces, he said, and some have snapped.

He described a woman who abdicated all accountability to her family and now flies around the country with no particular goal.

I said, “She starts a sentence, and by the time she finishes you’ve lost track of what it was she was trying to say.” 

David got a strange look on his face, as if to ask if I’d been in the room.

“In the business,” I said, “we call it press of speech, flight of ideas, and tangential associations.”

“You’ve just described her to a T,” he said.

I turned to Bethany.  “What’s your diagnosis?”

“Bipolar disease, manic phase,” she said, and grinned.

Avoiding pedantry, I let Bethany do the talking.  By now she has acquired an immense fund of knowledge by watching the disease progress in so many people.

A wave of mania and depression, and uncovering of bipolar disease, in the wake of severe stress followed by sleep deprivation, makes perfect sense to me.

Ursula said, “And compared to Fukushima, can you imagine what they’re going through?”

For David, the work in the disaster area has been a life-changing event; he and Ursula agree he’s a lot easier to live with.  “He doesn’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” she said.  “It puts things into perspective.

 My thanks to David for his help with this post.