Essay: From earthquake to sauvignon blanc in New Zealand

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.</p>

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.

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."

A locksmith let us in to Burdon's apartment, since his electronic key was not going to work. The building was sound, but his fifth-floor residence looked like a tornado had swept through: every dish was out of cupboards and shelves and smashed on the floor, every painting was off the wall, every lamp was overturned, every piano photo and knick knack was shattered on the floor. Glass, rubble, dust, plaster everywhere. No place to sit or stay here.

So we piled into his car and headed to the airport’s Antarctic Center, where we were told our conference attendees were being assembled, the Americans for evacuation on a U.S. military plane to Wellington. This is the jumping-off point for Antarctica, so there are U.S. military planes on the field all summer, shuttling to and from the ice. Many didn't have their passports, so they were being issued temporary documents to return to the States. The chaos there was somewhat organized, but mostly you could just see small groups of people sitting quietly on the floor, still looking shocked.

Burdon and I left the others there and headed to Geraldine in his Jaguar; not a bad rescue vehicle, I must say! We stopped at his mushroom growing and processing factory on the outskirts of Christchurch (Philip owns the largest food processing conglomerate in New Zealand). No damage there, and ― remarkably ― the next day 80 percent of the work force showed up. We took back roads to Geraldine, about 110 miles southwest of Christchurch. The main highway was clogged with traffic, most petrol stations were out of gas or had lines several blocks long, and every motel and B&B was filled even as far away as Geraldine.

We reached his "little" country estate, which had been founded by his father nearly 80 years ago. I was able to settle into quarters in the guest house, shower and get clean, but had no other clothes, of course, at this point. We headed off to the Aclands’ farm about 20 minutes away and were warmly greeted by Ro and John. I am not a scotch drinker, but a stiff shot of whiskey seemed very much in order that night. Philip and John grew up just these few miles apart on their families' respective farms, and of course were fast friends as youngsters and went to same prep school. But Philip met Ro Acland before John did; they were both exchange students in the same year in Minnesota, so they had traveled together to the United States by ship. What a small world!

As always there was a diversity of guests at the Aclands for dinner, including an Argentine mega-dairy farmer. Despite the lively discussion on politics and trade, both Philip and I were fairly exhausted (I wonder why?) and returned right after dinner to his place. With a promise to "tidy this all up" in the morning we were off to bed.

Wednesday morning, Burdon was on the phone, calling his assistant in Wellington to confirm that the only flight north that could be booked would be 24 hours later from Duneidin (everyone was fleeing Christchurch). So then there was a call to John Hutton here in Motueka, and he agreed to drive down and meet me at the Antarctic Center. Burdon had to go into town to pick up his wife flying in from Wellington; no trouble getting a flight into Christchurch. Another call went to the conference organizers to see if anyone knew what would happen with our luggage still trapped in the hotel, closed and off-limits to everyone. Answer: we really don't know. So back we went to Christchurch.

After John arrived, we started the long five-hour drive back to Motueka. For John, it was 10 hours of driving, but for me it was a transition from chaos and uncertainty to calm and beauty. At last I was reunited with telecommunications, borrowing one of their laptops and a cord to recharge my phone.

Today, I went into town to get some underwear and trousers to keep me in clean clothes until I return home on Saturday. There was an email message from the conference organizers asking us for a list of items that were left behind in our hotel rooms. Judging from the scope of the disaster and the complexity of the search and rescue operations, it is likely to be days or even weeks before we are able to recover what was left behind. But when I look at the suffering of those remaining in Christchurch, such concerns seem petty indeed.

I am safe, well and comfortable now, and I realize that I was extraordinarily lucky. Not to be lost in my tale are those who were affected severely by the earthquake ― those who perished, those who lost loved ones or saw their homes in ruin. I have been coming to New Zealand for years, and the earthquake’s aftermath confirmed once again the generosity of spirit among Kiwis. That spirit and the resolute determination to get “all tidied up” will help them recover from this tragedy.

Jim Kolbe, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an investor in the Awatea Tasman Bay bed and breakfast in New Zealand.