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Melanie Riwai-Couch

July 05, 2012

The other night I woke to an earthquake.

It was the sort of earthquake that you can hear as well as feel, and I vaguely remember opening my eyes, thinking, “I can’t hear anything breaking.” So I went back to sleep.

This is the norm for many people living in Christchurch. Earthquakes occur so often that the threshold for when we finally take earthquake action is now significantly higher. We live with it because, for now, it is our reality.

We haven’t always been this way. Before 2010, Christchurch was not known as an earthquake-prone city, and we didn’t even know that there were fault lines beneath it. But at 4:35 a.m. on September 4, 2010, the people of Christchurch had a brutal awakening. People were thrown from their beds, and most huddled in doorframes and under tables for the rest of the morning. In all the confusion, many suburbs lost electricity and were flooded with liquid, muddy sand.

At that point, no one knew how many aftershocks would follow, and no one would have guessed that there would be more than ten thousand of them in only two years.

One of those aftershocks happened on February 22, 2011. It was not as large as the first big one, but its location and shallowness made it particularly vicious. One hundred eighty-three people died that day. One hundred sixteen of them were in one building—the building had simply pancaked, collapsing in twenty seconds.

But the ground isn’t the only thing experiencing aftershocks. Each individual continues to experience the aftermath of the shakes, struggling with the grief and trauma of living in such difficult conditions. Thousands have been forced to leave their broken homes and thousands more continue to struggle with insurance companies. One family I know had their home filled with that sandy, muddy stuff five times. Imagine it: your house knee-deep in mud in the middle of the night, and there are a thousand other people with the same problem, so help isn’t coming any time soon.

As for my personal aftershocks, I’m continually exhausted with the relentless preparations required for a shake, and constantly concerned for the well-being of my children. For me, the shakes have meant a daily routine of being aware of exactly where my children are, discerning the quickest way to get them if there is a large shake, knowing how I will communicate if phone lines go down, and having enough food and warmth in case shops are closed and I lose electricity. This is the dilemma of having to go on with life while living in a city that can change from being warm and friendly to something akin to a war zone in seconds.

I have had moments when I genuinely feared for the lives of my children. I have offered silent prayers of gratitude for having had them with me for their short lives. I have wondered if I can cope with the ongoing demands, if I am strong enough to carry on when it seems so hard, and if I can go another night without sleep on top of everything else.

But even with these challenges there have been numerous blessings and opportunities for personal and community growth. One way our family has grown is through Family Home Evenings. We practice emergency drills to make sure the children can actually carry their survival packs, and teach the children to navigate road crossings to emergency shelters so they could find their way if they needed to. As a family, we have prepared welfare packs for displaced children living in welfare centres, and helped dig mud and loose sediment out of people’s homes. Together with other Church members, we have helped with welfare efforts, and it has made both our family and ward family stronger.

In moments of relief, I have pondered what we can do to protect our families when crises hit. But I’ve come to realize that even though we cannot control nature or the frightening events occurring all around us, we can control ourselves. We can make sure that our relationships are in good order, we can live Christ-like lives of compassion and integrity, and we can honour our temple covenants. There is always someone worse off than us, and helping them can be the balm for our own wounds. Then, after we have done all that we can, we receive the trial of faith—times that shake us will come, but we must leave the rest up to the Lord.