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Essay: From earthquake to sauvignon blanc in New Zealand

The Christchurch temblor makes the world feel very small for former US Congressman Jim Kolbe.

Christchurch earthquake buckled roadEnlarge
Cyclists leap over a damaged section of path on Feb. 24, 2011 after a 6.3 earthquake devastated the city of Christchurch, New Zealand on Feb. 22. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

MOTUEKA, New Zealand ― As I write this, I am sipping an iced tea and overlooking a beautiful river valley, writing with a borrowed laptop. Just a few days ago, this bliss seemed very far away.

I was in Christchurch for the fourth meeting of the U.S.-New Zealand Partnership, a group that looks at different aspects of the bilateral relationship. The conference attendees had been scattered across the city in 20 different group lunches, and eight of us had just sat down in the faculty club dining room at Canterbury University. I had taken one bite of salmon when suddenly I was rocked out of my chair, all the tableware crashed to the floor, paintings fell, and a six-inch crack opened in the wall.

"Under the table!" one of the Kiwis yelled and we scrambled before the shaking stopped a few seconds later. We crawled out and immediately went outside to the lawn ― but not before I grabbed my plate of salmon and glass of good New Zealand sauvignon blanc. "Take it. It may be a long time before you eat again," the waitress said. Smart lady. We ate al fresco on the lawn, endured the first of many aftershocks, almost more terrifying because you know they are coming and with everything weakened, even more walls can come tumbling down.

Power was down, water lines were spewing water in the streets, which had buckled in many spots. But still, since the news was reporting the Richter scale of this quake to be 6.3, we figured it would be much less damage than a September quake, which was 7.1. How wrong we were! Earthquake lesson: It is not just the score on the Richter scale that determines the severity of quake damage but its "acceleration" rate ― how close to the surface is it. This was very close and very damaging.

It was apparent that we were not going to be picked up and returned to our conference. So we decided to walk back into town, a journey ― in suit and uncomfortable shoes ― of about four miles. (I realize now that I have little to complain about considering the death and destruction wrought by this quake — at press time, the death toll had risen to 144.)

One of our group was former New Zealand Prime Minister James Bolger, who was recognized all along the road. Another in our group was just-retired U.S. Senator Evan Bayh. He knew his wife had been on the 13th floor of our hotel and was worried about her. As it turned out, she was able to get out of the building, but had walked only a short distance when a wall fell on a woman only a few feet in front of her, crushing and killing her. Susan was saved in part by another tourist who pushed her out of the way.

When we reached downtown we found we were blocked from entering the city center where our hotel was located. So we walked half a block to the Christchurch Art Gallery where Civil Defense was already gathered and a command post had been set up. We could see down the streets into the city center, and it was obvious this was a truly horrific event. Buildings had collapsed, rubble completely filled the streets, fires were sprouting everywhere, people were walking around dazed, and more and more ambulances, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles kept racing past. The civil defense personnel confirmed to PM Bolger that this was a much, much more catastrophic event than the last quake.

Meanwhile, as we were standing around at the art gallery, who should walk by but Bolger's former trade minister, Philip Burdon, walking back from a dentist appointment. After a chat with Bolger, Burdon invited us all back to his flat until we could get this "all tidied up" ― which I discovered is a favorite Kiwi understatement.

As we were walking back, Burdon asked what I was going to do and added that he was going to head for his “country bungalow” in South Canterbury. I mentioned that I was supposed to have dinner in Christchurch that evening with John and Ro Acland, two old friends of mine. "John and Ro?" he said with familiarity. "Well, you will just have to drive down with me to Geraldine and we will all have dinner together tonight down there since they can't get to Christchurch."