Wellington resilience emerges

By Ewan McDonald

Citizens casually confer, then get on with what they were doing.

With trains cancelled commuters try their luck at hitch-hiking. Photo / Getty Images
With trains cancelled commuters try their luck at hitch-hiking. Photo / Getty Images

Sell it and they will come.

It takes more than a magnitude-6.6 earthquake and scores of aftershocks to keep Wellingtonians away from one of the most important dates on the social calendar - the Saturday morning opening day of Kirkcaldie and Stains' Once-A-Year sale.

The store is bustling with bargain hunters though the butler at the front door of the country's poshest department store agrees "it's a bit quieter than usual". In his scarlet top hat and green frock coat, the butler confides: "Wellingtonians are very resilient people."

Apart from a few hastily printed "Closed due to earthquake" signs, most shops along Lambton Quay, Willis and Manners Sts are open. But counter staff chat among themselves.

As morning drizzle becomes afternoon rain, cafes along New Zealand's most self-conscious street are less than full of Cuba St's apartment dwellers talking about their favourite subject: themselves.

Yesterday doesn't happen here. The bars along Courtenay Place yawn, and think about waking up. It'll be a big night, and a long one. The All Blacks won't kick off until 10pm.

Justin du Fresne, a capital radio personality since the 60s, tells his Saturday-morning listeners he's had a "go bag" of vital necessities at his home since the earlier quakes. This is the first day in five decades he's gone to the inner-city studio with a "stay bag" in case the roof, or walls, fall in.

In the central library on Friday afternoon, it felt as if the chair, and then the room, and then the building, was beginning to churn, first slowly, then faster. Books fell. Lights swayed from ceiling wires.

The strongest reaction was the lack of anyone reacting. A woman climbed under an old wooden table. People looked at one another. Hardly anyone spoke. After the vast building stopped rolling, people gathered up their bags and coats and wandered into the plaza, into the surrounding streets, reaching for their cellphones.

In Willis St and Lambton Quay, people stood on corners, casually conferring with one another. No one seemed panicked, fearful: there was an attitude of "that's over, let's get back to what we were doing".

And they did: some to cafes, some back to work.

The mood changed when the sirens started and fire engines charged through the capital's narrow streets. Offices were shut, staff ordered out. Shops closed. Huddling under scaffolding around buildings damaged in earlier quakes, people peered upward, looking for damage.

Out came the cellphone cameras. Twenty and 30 minutes after the shock, the trauma was setting in.

We all forgot Rule 1. We went outside, into city streets, stood under tower blocks straddling laneways, and rubbernecked.

Go Wellington buses are still running, even if gridlock means there's little chance of going anywhere. Those who have cellphone service spread the word: "It was 6.9 ... 8km down". Wellington used to be a city of government servants: now everyone's a geo-technician.

On a bus through the seaside suburbs of Oriental Bay, Roseneath, Hataitai, Kilbirnie and Rongotai passengers compete to tell the tallest tale - how high their office is.

The winner, unchallenged, is a woman who was in the 15th floor coffee corner. She watched cups and saucers crash to the floor. When she saw the coffee machine rocking off the bench, she dived under a table with a colleague.

Worried passengers ask the driver to open the doors so they can walk home - presumably not through the Mt Victoria tunnel.

By Kilbirnie, 90-minutes into a 30-minute journey, it's as if the quake happened in another city. I'm surprised to see planes landing and taking off from the airport. If trains can't run because the tracks need to be inspected, what about runways?

As I walk into the Strathmore home of my sister Phyllis, the house shudders, cries and creaks in the 5.30pm aftershock. She goes to her computer and opens one of her favourites sites: GeoNet.

"Five-point-six," she says, and makes another pot of tea.

- Herald on Sunday

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