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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 02/24/2011

Eyewitness account of New Zealand earthquake

By Steve Tracton

Climate researcher Kevin Trenberth describes experience

A long-time friend of mine, prominent climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, sent me his eyewitness account of Tuesday's deadly earthquake in New Zealand along with damage photos. Kevin is a native of New Zealand who coincidentally was visiting family and friends when the earthquake struck.

Collapsed brick wall on the back side of Trenberth's sister's house.

Kevin had been in the center of Christchurch, a normally beautiful city of some 400,000, one hour before the earthquake, but was in Mt. Pleasant (about five miles southeast of Christchurch) at the house of his sister and her husband when the quake struck. While Christchurch experienced extensive damage and loss of life - and the center of media attention - the smaller community of Mt. Pleasant was the actual epicenter of the earthquake.

Kevin describes the quake as very sharp and said:

"the whole ground buckled and heaved ... and the devastation was immediate."

Kevin and family members at home at the time got under the dining room table as "everything came off the walls, the china cabinet and all the crystal" went crashing around them. "In the room we were in 6 mm (.2 in) plate glass windows were smashed, and likewise in the adjacent living room." (The windows overlooked a great view of Christchurch, which was covered with dust rising from the city moments after the quake.

Keep reading for more of Kevin's eyewitness account and photos...

In the kitchen, about two meters (6-7 feet) from their location, "the cupboards emptied, the built in wall oven crashed onto the floor followed by the built in microwave. Then the big refrigerator with bottom freezer fell on top of all that ... All the glassware and crockery were smashed, as well as the windows, broken glass everywhere ... Some of it rained very close to my head."

A big crack in the house's foundation.

Kevin continues:

"But the house held in front. Not so in the back. The back wall was bricked and had a French door: the wall collapsed and the door jerked out and away from the house so it is wide open (and thus opens to intruders). There are big cracks in the foundation."

Ironically coincidental, Kevin reports, the house had been inspected the morning before the quake to appraise its condition in light of the last earthquake in the area just five months ago (September 2010). "The house was pronounced very sound with only minor repairs needed. Not any more. It is now 'munted': a complete write off and unlivable."

"Banks of rocks and solid ground near the house collapsed and made it difficult to get out. The road outside had a big crack and the sidewalk dropped 20 cm (7.9 in) relative to the road and a gap opened 8 cm (3.1 in) wide. The water main broke just above there and water cascaded down past the front of the house, making it a wet experience getting to my rental car, which was OK ... As soon as we could we checked the areas to see if anyone needed help..."

Fortunately, Kevin was uninjured but his brother suffered some cuts from flying glass.

Close by, other relatives barely got out in time as a cliff collapsed on their house. Another family member was in the inner city of Christchurch in a nine-story building next to the town square. "She was thrown and immediately went down the stairs onto the street only to see the big cathedral in the center of the square collapse in front of her. The debris rained down on top of some people." Her car in the parking lot was totaled. She managed to hitchhike six miles home uninjured but shaken.

Sinkholes and huge piles of silt in the street made many roads impassable.

When all of Kevin's nearby family members were finally gathered in one place, they packed a car with clothes, stuff and personal items, secured the premises as best they could, and traveled across town on damaged roads to overnight with his sister's son. "It is extremely difficult to get around owing to what they call 'liquefaction' of the ground and sink holes."

Kevin spent the next day helping the rescue effort. He reports that compounding the problems are the many frightening aftershocks (over 50). "No one has water and the sewer lines are broken in many places by the tremors. So water is major problem.... and many bridges across the river Avon meandering through the city are down/closed."

Kevin concludes:

"This is a major tragedy. Many people, like my sister, are homeless, but not as badly off as some. They own a small cottage some 40 miles away, and that area is fine. We hope to go there on Friday for an overdue shower."

Final note: Anyone with some spare cash is requested to make donations to assist victims of the earthquake. A full list of agencies seeking donations is listed here.

By Steve Tracton  | February 24, 2011; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  International Weather, Latest, Tracton  
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Thanks for posting, Steve. I also received an email from a U.S. Antarctic Program friend who was in Christchurch during the quake. The Program's summer season ended last week, so there were hundreds of personnel staying in Christchurch. As far as she knows, all of them made it out alive, though some who were staying in the center of the city have lost passports and belongings. Hard to believe that such a beautiful city with such warm people is going through this devastation. I feel very fortunate to have spent time there last year before the quakes during my trip to Antarctica.

Also, the term 'liquefaction' is new to me. Very interesting concept, and difficult to imagine.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | February 24, 2011 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Just a note--I tried to make a donation to the Red Cross in NZ using the link provided in this blog post, and the transaction was denied, flagged as fraud, and my credit card account was frozen. Luckily, I was able to get it unfrozen within 15 minutes by calling the credit card company and explaining the situation. But be aware that other Americans will probably also have trouble donating to relief efforts using those links.

Posted by: lmd217 | February 24, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

THANKS for passing this along, Imd217. I have no explanation but I'll try to find out.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 24, 2011 7:25 PM | Report abuse

In response to a question I made to the New Zealand Red Cross concerning donations to relief efforts using a charge card, I received the following information from Julian Ochs, Fundraising Administrator, New Zealand Red Cross.

"Apologies for this, this might be due to the fact that you have used your credit card on a New Zealand website for the first time and your bank has stopped your transaction as a precaution. Please also make sure that you are on our official website when making donations: ".

"Alternatively the best way to support those affected by the Christchurch earthquake is to donate by cheque to:"

New Zealand Red Cross 2011 Earthquake Appeal
Freepost 232690, PO Box 12140
Thorndon, Wellington 6144

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 28, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

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