On September 4, 2010, when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake rocked Christchurch, New Zealand, broadcaster Simon Barnett was not at home with his children. He was a couple of hours away, having a perfectly nice weekend at Hanmer Springs with his wife, Jodi.
Jodi hadn’t been enthusiastic about leaving their four girls at home. She’d taken a lot of persuading and remained uncomfortable as the weekend progressed. Barnett could see no problems. “What could possibly happen?” he’d said.
Then at 4 a.m., the whole of Hanmer shuddered in one of New Zealand’s many tremors. “The girls will be all right,” Barnett said. “They won’t even have felt it.”
But he was mistaken. The phone rang. It was the girls. There’d been an earthquake, cupboards had fallen over, the electricity was off. All four were huddled in one bed. All four girls wanted their parents home. Now!
But it couldn’t be. Hanmer Springs was literally frozen. It was impossible to even open the car doors, and to drive the icy, winding road in the dark would be just too treacherous. So, for the next two hours, Barnett and Jodi talked their girls through the aftershocks, while waiting for enough daylight to make the journey home to Christchurch.
“It was only when we drove back into Christchurch that we realised the severity of the quake,” Barnett says. “Roads were blocked. People wandered about in their pyjamas. There was water everywhere.”
Barnett’s career as a radio broadcaster drew him in to work. “It was a privilege to be able to broadcast at that time,” he says. “We were able to be of encouragement and help keep up morale. People were able to tell their story and be heard.”
While there was a lot of damage, there were no fatalities from the earthquake. As a Christian, Barnett is hesitant to assert certain things as “acts of God,” as there are real sensitivities Christians need to be aware of, such as “Why would God let one faithful believer be spared and another perish?”
“I don’t believe this enormous question can be adequately answered this side of heaven,” he says, “so we need to be careful about using terms like miracle in this context.”
The Big One
Then, just a few months later, on Tuesday, February 22, 2011, at 12.49 p.m., Christchurch was brought to its knees by a magnitude 6.3 quake. Already weakened buildings crumbled, crushing 185 people beneath fallen masonry and collapsed roofs. Buildings collapsed onto roadways, where pedestrians, cars and buses were crushed, giving it the dubious honour of being the second-deadliest recorded natural disaster in New Zealand’s history.
Once again, Barnett and Jodi were away from their girls. They had eaten lunch together at home and the girls were at school. This time, there was no telephone contact. This time, their route was even less easily navigable. The bridge between home and school was closed, so they had to take the long way around over the hills and through the destruction.
“[Christchurch] looked like a bomb had gone off,” Barnett says. “Like Armageddon. Essentially, the city shut down. People were panicking. We went into a service station, where all the stock had fallen onto the floor. The attendant, a young woman, was overwhelmed by what had happened but valiantly continued to serve customers through streams of tears.”
It was not easy to navigate through the damage. Along the way they found themselves involved in other people’s lives: a house was about to collapse but there was a woman in a wheelchair inside and she wouldn’t leave the house without it.
“We were trying to persuade her to let us carry her out, but she didn’t want to leave,” Barnett says. “Then another aftershock hit. It was clear the house might not remain standing. I really felt uncomfortable being there and decided we had to get the woman out. Fortunately her son arrived and he took over.”
“Time will heal,” Barnett continues, “but some things will never leave you. The sound of an earthquake is horrific. It begins as a low growling that accelerates quickly until it sounds like a freight train. You know you’ve got to hang on.
“God hard-wires people differently. After the quake I wasn’t worried. My wife was extremely anxious. We all cope differently.
“But our hope is in God, our peace is in Him. The earthquakes have shored up my belief. I trust Him with my marriage, my children, my life—everything.”
He refers to Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew: “Do not put away riches for yourselves on earth. Moths and rust can destroy them. Thieves can break in and steal them. Instead, put away riches for yourselves in heaven. There, moths and rust do not destroy them. There, thieves do not break in and steal them” (Matthew 6:19, 20).
For Barnett, life is less about one’s physical possessions than it is about our relationships. He paraphrases another Bible passage, 2 Corinthians 10:5: “Take care of every thought, demolish all arguments, in obedience to God.”
After the big earthquake, the family was evacuated from their home. They went to Barnett’s sister’s home, taking the dogs, the cats and the rabbit.
“There were 19 of us there, all sleeping on the floor in the lounge. Between shocks, lying in the dark, each person was asked if they were okay. ‘Jodi, are you okay?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Simon, are you okay?’ ‘Yes.’ It was a special time for us all.”
Barnett co-hosts the morning show on
Christchurch radio station 92 More FM
with Gary McCormick,
a job he considers a “privilege”
during Christchurch’s recovery
from its devastating earthquake.
(Photo credit: MORE FM)
The hill right behind the Barnett home had pushed forward. The concrete foundations had broken and the house had dropped 150 millimetres. Its doors no longer shut—a neighbour planed the doors but they still don’t shut, due to ongoing movement caused by the aftershocks. The roof leaks at one end of the house, and there is a risk from the hill, which is still on the move.
“It’s just fine,” Barnett says. “It’s good to be back in our own home. It’s a bit weird sometimes, though, because the hill used to be lit up with houselights, and now it’s in darkness.”
Despite his experiences, he offers very little advice for surviving an earthquake. “I have no practical advice for anyone,” Barnett says. “I can’t tell you what you need or don’t need. But I can tell you that a life can’t be lived in fear. Appreciate today. Enjoy your family. Cherish every single moment.”
Before the first quake, Barnett’s youngest daughter had been taught civil defence in school. The family had supported her in her learning and made an emergency survival kit with supplies that should have lasted their family a week: torches, batteries, candles, undies and, yes, chocolate! But within two hours of the first quake, the week’s supply of chocolate had been consumed! So he suggests that any stash of chocolate be substantially increased in order to cope with the stress!
“People still phone my radio station, wanting to talk,” Barnett says. “My role is to reflect the mood of the community. It’s cathartic to talk, and a blessing to listen and encourage people to care for and keep an eye out for each other.”
He tells of a 12-year-old who called the station to tell her story. Before she had finished, another aftershock jolted the city. Over the phone he heard the girl scream out to her brother, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”
It was one of those times when emotion charged through Barnett and his listeners. “Stay calm,” he said. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”
It was all right; her brother was fine. “I could feel myself tearing up,” Barnett says. “I could feel myself getting emotional. She could have been my child. I think every listener wanted to put her under their wing and protect her.
“I heard it said once that tough times don’t last, but tough people do. We have to draw strength from each other, be kind and patient, be generous and, now more than ever, literally love and care for our neighbours. We will rise above this to rebuild our nerve, rebuild our community and rebuild our beautiful city.”