Found journal entries: the Earthquake

 As time has healed the trauma and PTSD I suffered after surviving the 7.8 Kaikoura Earthquake, I sometimes forget how far I've come. When people ask about my tattoo, I often minimize the experience.

I wasn't ready to share these when I wrote them in 2016-2017. At that time, I could barely talk about the events with even my closest family members, and it's possible the details below might be news to them. 

But it's time. Time to explain, in some way, why I will never be the same person I was before the earthquake. Because I can't wait to share (hopefully in the next blog post!) who I am today, due in part to this experience.

The Old Convent, 2018



I’m attempting to break the silence, and the awkwardness of posting a blog about loving the place I live days before it is devastated by an earthquake. These past three weeks have been a confusion of “How do I talk about the earthquake?” “How can I make people understand, though they will never understand?” “How do I break the news to people who just have no idea what I’m going through?”

To add to my difficulty, whenever I think about it, let alone write about it, my anxiety heightens. My heart rate rises and my breathing gets short. Right now my hands are shaking. This is not easy.


But I know it is necessary. I feel like I need to put it out there “I’m not doing great guys!” but to actually spell out the details of what that entails is still yet too personal to put online.

This is my best attempt to explain the elephant in the room, that is the earthquake.


On November the 13th, shortly after midnight, there was a two minute long 7.8 earthquake that affected multiple areas of the east coast of New Zealand’s south Island, as well as Wellington on the North Island. The town that was worst hit was Kaikoura. All roads leading to Kaikoura were blocked by massive land slides and slips. Huge cracks and crevices ripped up the roads. When the shaking stopped there was no power, no water, no cell service, no septic.


It’s a mix of trauma and heartbreak. Trauma, because of those two minutes of terror in the middle of the night…which to attempt to explain gets my hands shaking again. And heartbreak, because, like the movie Inside Out so accurately portrays, almost 18 months of happy memories are in the process of turning into sad ones. There’s a little bit of betrayal too, by the place I lived and worked out of — a place that I had come to love, to be a place of times of joy, contentment and fulfillment. This very place could have so easily killed us all.

But it didn’t. Which makes it challenging: to have no physical scar — not a scratch or bruise — to show as a sort of indicator of the emotional damage lying beneath the surface. 


I know I should be grateful for the safety of us all. It’s a miracle. But all I find myself wanting to do is count my losses. How petty! I came away with not only my wellbeing but also the majority of my possessions, and yet I find myself mourning even those little losses. The ring holder my friend gave me as a going away present. The chaco flip flops (jandals) I got at an REI garage sale. My Adventure Camp tank top (singlet), or the SLC shirt that has been passed down by the women in my job goodness knows how many years. I feel a need to mourn even those things.


I’ve had numerous friends and family reach out to me over the past week, offering to be there if I needed someone to talk to about the earthquake. THE earthquake. The EARTHQUAKE. All that has been on my mind day and night ever since. Reliving it over and over again, in the slamming of doors and thundering of the wind.


But what can I tell? Because what’s really the most frightening thing about the earthquake, is that I can’t actually remember the two minutes that destroyed my home, my life as I knew it. All I can remember is the deafening, rattling darkness – the sound of every single board shaking – that wouldn’t end. The only coherent thought “I need to get out of here!” and the feeling of pure, raw fear. Fear that I was going to die. What I didn’t hear, or didn’t distinguish in the roar of noise and sensory overload, was the sound of a chimney collapsing and the roof falling into one of the bedrooms. The sound of every single picture frame and mirror, as well as multiple windowpanes, shattering, scattering glass on the floor. The sound of wardrobes tipping over and beds sliding. The sounds of ceilings crumbling and walls cracking. And the sound of people screaming, of someone yelling, “run for your life!” I was not aware that any of this happened till later. All I knew when the shaking stopped was that the electricity was out and that my bedside table had flipped over across the room as I groped around in the dark afterwards, my laptop glowing on the floor where it had been thrown. I heard students calling out “there’s glass!” and scrambled to find shoes and my car keys. I must have heard them calling my name, because I yelled out “Head to the circle garden! Grab shoes!” Finding my purse with my keys, while stepping on the back of a broken mirror, I dropped a fleece I considered bringing and sprinted outside. I sprinted BAREFOOT, over glass, over fallen shoes and debris all the way out to the breezeway. I SPRINTED. And I didn’t get a single scratch. 


In the confusion I hadn’t grabbed my glasses, so I couldn’t drive. Should I go back in? No. Did the professor make it out? Yes. I was put in charge of counting to make sure all the students were there, which was terrifying because I couldn’t actually make out their faces in the dark. I noticed one of the students holding her head, being supported by two people as she walked to the vans. I tried to get the students to count off, but I ended up yelling into each vehicle “How many students are in here??” At that point I realized I was completely helpless. 10 students. Vans started up and rolled out past downed power wires and large breaks in the road. “Oh shit!” I said each time we bumped our way over the crevices that had cracked through the road up to the mountain. That road has never felt longer. We were the third to arrive, on a road that would later hold some 30 odd vehicles, maybe more, all fleeing to higher ground in light of a tsunami warning. No cell service. No communications. No power. No food. But we had water, for now, and bags of back-up clothes that looked like track suits, along with the light of the “super moon.” I assessed the injuries in my van, only a bleeding cut on the bottom of a foot. Trembling, I ran to the other van and got gauze and medical tape. I couldn’t stop shivering and shaking, and realized I was in shock. I went back to my van to sit, and drink some water, waiting for the adrenaline to wear off so I could determine if I had any injuries I wasn’t currently feeling.

So we sat, awake, in the vans waiting for sunrise, swaying with each aftershock, some of which were over 6.0 magnitudes. I thought we were hearing the echoing of the earthquake coming through the mountains, but it was in fact the sound of the scree and shale slips that were sliding down the mountain with each shake.


It was a beautiful sunrise. Ironic. With morning’s first light we made our way back down the mountain, one of the vans needing a push out from where it had sunk into the mud overnight. We could hardly get back over the cracks in the road to the convent, but when we did it was then we saw the hole in the roof—right over the “People’s” room.


It was like a dream. I waited, impatiently, for maybe five minutes in the van, and then frustrated with my helplessness got out to see if someone could get me my glasses. There was broken glass on every step of the staircase. The huge glass mirror that hung in the hallway over the toiletry cabinet had fallen and shattered, as well as the huge “Mary Annunciation” scene over the stairs, and numerous picture frames otherwise. I walked up to my bedroom, that familiar pilgrimage, to find two of the staff stuffing everything I owned into my suitcase and osprey pack. I didn’t think it was the end, the last time I would see that room, but I should have known better. The wall had cracked over my dresser, which is why I could feel the dust and plaster in my hair as I sat in the vans all night. I don’t know what happened in my bathroom, but most of my stuff in there was never recovered. Everything was on the floor, like a mass robbery had gone down or bomb had gone off. In reality though, I got off really lucky. I got everything of value, and the room was structurally a lot safer than others on the second floor because of its small size.


February 2017 Update


An update has been long overdue. But, as you can imagine, when something traumatic happens to you, it’s difficult to talk or write about it. Even now, I hesitate to be so vulnerable.


My last night in the Old Convent I went to bed reflecting on the roller-coaster like emotional ride that has marked my time working and living in New Zealand, that day in particular. That Sunday I had experienced all the joy of joining the worship team at church on the violin, and of hearing my pastor compliment me on my playing. Then, I confessed to one of my dearest friends the frustrations I was facing at my job, and my secret consideration of quitting come December. Then followed the normalcy of a Sunday afternoon- showing the new professor around the property and discussing class with him, and making dinner with the help of some of my lovely small group ladies: cream of broccoli soup, tomato basil soup, and grilled cheese. Any meal you get to use an immersion blender is a good meal. Now, the remnants of that meal remain rotting in bits of broken glass on the kitchen floor.


Luckily, the day ended as it began- on a high note. After community night on the beach and town hall in the lounge, we hung out in the hallway of all places, a few students, my coworker Bennett, and friend Elise. Talking, joking, exchanging massages- all the usual. It was the sort of moment that reminded me why I decided to return for New Zealand for a second year. I really enjoyed spending time with the students. As one of the students headed up the staircase to bed, she said, “Lauren, I’m going to miss you.” I laughed saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow!” “Yes, I know, I just feel like this semester is going so fast” she replied. I waved it off with a comment that we still had four more weeks.


I wonder if people can sense when something bad is going to happen. For my part, I did not in the slightest, even after such a premonition as that conversation. I did not have one last look around the rooms, nor any nostalgic glances around the place I had come to cherish so dearly as my home. I went to bed fully believing that I would wake up at 7:30am the next morning, shower, and get downstairs in time for breakfast and breakfast clean-up. I already had plans to take my small group out paddle-boarding one afternoon that week, and to go on a coffee date with Joey, Taylor and Elise. That Saturday I was going to be babysitting for my favorite family, the Boyces. And after the next two rigorous weeks of classes I would be done- free to spend the rest of the semester hanging out with the students, creating memories, and celebration gifts. I looked forward to seeing my brother and his wife for Christmas. I had at least two more birthday parties to plan, and had hopes to play Christmas carols on the violin for Kaikoura’s town holiday celebration, and many, many other hopes.


But shortly after midnight, all of that changed. A 7.8 earthquake rocked our town, our house, for a little over 2 minutes, which is insanely long for an earthquake. In that time walls cracked, roof tiles broke off and chimneys collapsed, furniture flipped or slid across the room, glass shattered everywhere, and in some places the roof collapsed. But I didn’t know any of that while it was happening- it was sensory overload, just pure undistinguishable noise. It’s still a bit confusing in my memory. But it is an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy, on any other human being for that matter. I should be grateful that I escaped that building without a single scratch or bruise. But instead I am left trembling with the realization of how very little control I have over my own life. How very frail and mortal life is. And how easily things could have ended much, much worse.


I left New Zealand after a week. That’s a long story in itself, but it was the soonest I could leave. During that time, and for weeks after I had PTSD. I still experience bouts of extreme anxiety, and can’t always identify the triggers. Ultimately, between those triggers and the frustrations referred to earlier, I realized that returning to NZ to work the spring semester was impossible. And thus ended the great adventure—with more of a bang than I would’ve liked.


The hardest part has been leaving my church and my support system back in New Zealand, indefinitely. I have my family here, but have yet to find a church I can call home. That is my biggest prayer request.


I’m sending this off individually because I’m not ready yet to publish this as a public post yet. Curiosity sometimes bring out the least sensitive side of people, and I’d rather only people I knew cared about me know the extent of how I am doing. In that vein, I trust your discretion with the details of this update.


Thank you for your friendship, and your prayers.


Lauren Berg


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