Earthquakes, floods, and 53 hours that changed my life


"That's not the cat," was my first thought as I woke up to a shaking room and both wardrobe doors rattling.

"Earthquake" exclaimed Renee who was also woken up by the intensifying tremor. We waited in bed for another 10 or 20 seconds, expecting the movement to slacken off. It didn't.

"We've got to get outside," I shouted as I leapt out of bed. Renee, who was nine months pregnant, didn't hesitate in following me.

By this stage the entire house was rattling and the floor was beginning to feel like jelly. In a brief lull we made it to the front door, turned the key, and ran outside into the lawn.

Our two cars, parked in the driveway by virtue of a garage filled with the yet to be dumped packaging of reading our house for the arrival of our son, bounced around as if some unseen giant hand was testing out the suspension on them.

The shaking started to get more violent and we instinctively tried to sit down. Crouching, a giant shunt from the earth landed us both on our arses as the overhead lines down the street sparked away. The slightly overcast sky lit up with luminescent green flashes as the same scene played out across the district.

Other than the rattling of bottles and chandeliers, the most terrifying sound was the guttural churning you could hear from the ground itself. It felt as if any moment the earth would part and we'd be sucked into it.

Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, the shaking dissipated. An eerie silence fell over the world bar the desperate call of car alarms, sprung into action by the sheer magnitude of the quake. Occasionally our dog, Max, would bark from his bed in the lounge.

Renee and I waited on the lawn, sitting and hugging each other, for another minute or so, hoping that there was nothing more to follow.

"Should we evacuate?" I remember asking.

"I don't know. Aren't there meant to be sirens?" Renee replied.

Not thinking, I went back inside to get my phone. Thankfully I couldn't see any damage inside. Returning outside I realised there was no cellular or WiFi signal. Power had gone out and, had I been thinking straight, I'd of realised that before I'd gone inside.

Through the darkness we heard cars being started up, and the first of what would turn into a relatively steady stream of cars headed down the main room at the front of our house.

"We've got to go," I said and we both went back inside. I managed to find a torch in my bedside table, "I'm going to get Mika and Max," I called back to Renee.

"What?" she asked in astonishment.

"We have to try and take them," while it was nicely sentimental on my part, it was also incredibly daft. Having retrieved his carrier, Mika (our cat) sprinted straight from the kitchen and underneath our bed and into one of the suitcases. After a fruitless moment trying to get him to come out, we decided to leave it.

Renee by this point had let Max out. Max, who was already upset, instantly barked and growled at me and the flash light. It was only after switching it off and reassuring him that it was me that he started to calm down. We got his collar and lead on him and Renee took him to the car.

My mind now switched to work. With a shake that big I realised that if it wasn't right underneath us, it had probably done a lot worse damage elsewhere. From having worked at Te Papa during the previous Seddon earthquakes, I remembered how important it was for people online to see messages of reassurance. For Te Papa it was just letting people know that everyone inside the museum was safe, especially those who had children who were visiting the museum that day. But when you're advising on the Prime Minister's social media, that takes on a whole new importance. So I grabbed my work bag, knowing that it had my iPad, a couple of battery packs, and charger cables with it, and headed for the car.

Backing out of the driveway we could see move cars heading away from the beach. We joined them. Driving from Paraparaumu Beach through to Paraparaumu Town was a surreal site. 12.15am and it looked more like rush hour, but with people in their pyjamas standing on the footpath trying to process what was happening. We crossed what is now the old State Highway 1. The traffic lights were out, but people were courteous, letting traffic from the main highway head towards the hills. We joined the procession, and towards the peak of Valley Road we pulled over and stopped.

Listening to the radio the first thing we heard was the radio host (and I'm not sure if it was Newstalk ZB or RadioLive) reacting to an aftershock. I popped out and let the dog relieve himself while working through what to do. I sent off a few text messages to family and work colleagues, making sure all were okay. I then set to work on seeing if I could determine what the damage might be, and if there was a tsunami warning in effect.

The next three hours were a bit of a blur. The Prime Minister posted on social media, warnings about the tsunami risk were retweeted. We briefly thought we were in the all clear around 1am and started to head to home. We got halfway back to Paraparaumu Beach before we heard a fresh round of tsunami warnings, so we turned around and ended up parking in the commuter car park at Paraparaumu station. Another car pulled up next to us and we had a chat about their experience.

Hearing more warnings we decided to head to one of the higher points in Paraparaumu, up where the water reservoir is. We sat up there for the next 90 minutes watching people still streaming away from the beach in their cars, listening to the reaction on the radio, and sharing in the collective trauma as New Zealanders told their stories on Twitter.

Around 3.30am we got the all clear and headed for home. Between the adrenaline and the aftershocks I didn't get much sleep.

Based on my experience of the previous earthquakes, where we were living in Martinborough, I'd already decided I wasn't going to go into work on Monday morning. After that first Seddon earthquake I'd nearly got stuck in Wellington. I remember that drive in over the Rimutakas, through the Hutt Valley, and into Wellington. The roads deserted, signs warning people to stay out of the CBD unless absolutely necessary. I wasn't going to repeat that mistake, especially with our due date only six days away, and my work colleagues would have turned me around and told me to go home had I gone in anyway!

Monday flew by as I sat, somewhat helplessly, trying to assist with whatever I could from home. I was set up to work pretty well from home, but there's a limit on what you can do when you need content from on the ground. Thankfully some colleagues who worked closer to the Beehive had managed to get in and were doing amazing work.

On Monday night I still didn't get much sleep. The frequent and strong aftershocks meant we were constantly heading for cover, even if they didn't amount to much.

I woke up early on Tuesday to head into work. I was so focused on the earthquake I completely missed the severe weather warnings. Arriving in Wellington as the weather started to pack in, I didn't think much of it. I was trying to figure out where to park. I knew parking in the Terrace car park wasn't an option, it had nearly been closed in the previous Seddon earthquakes, I didn't want to get trapped. Instead I managed to find a good park on the waterfront. I didn't notice the big tears in the concrete closer to the water where the reclaimed land and wharfs had moved separately from each other.

Our Beehive offices were a mess, but not as bad as they had been the day before. A co-worker had done an amazing job tidying up the worst of the damage. Somehow my desk survived relatively unscathed, though a fridge behind my desk had tried to leap off its perch.

That morning I briefly sat in on an update on the situation in Kaikōura. Coming back down from it, and going through a plan for the day, my manager popped down to see me.

"You'd better head for home, train services have just been cancelled north of Wellington," he said. Everyone was aware I was on baby watch, and they'd suggested that I didn't have to come in that day, but I chose to to help out as I knew what they were all having to deal with.

"I just saw," I said pointing to Tweetdeck on my screen where Metlink's tweet was reappearing in my timeline, "But judging on what they're saying, I think the road might be closed too."

Next thing I knew, Metlink's tweet about bus replacements for trains was out the window, the notification came through that State Highway 1 had been cut. I knew that there was no point trying to take SH2 and going over the Haywards, as if Plimmerton was flooded, so would Pauatahanui be flooded too.
I briefly considered whether it was worth taking the very, very, very long way home, going over the Rimutakas, through the Wairarapa, cutting across the Manawatu Gorge, then back down to Paraparaumu. I ditched that idea when I remembered how vulnerable elements of that route had proven to be to extreme weather. I was stuck in town, and judging by the carnage unfolding outside, I was going to be stuck for a while.

Since I'd been at work from about 7am, I left around 4pm. I'd already decided I was going to stay at my parents' house in Broadmeadows. I thought I'd prepare myself by zipping into Farmers to get a few essentials for an overnight stay. They were closed due to earthquake damage. I doubled back to my car and spent the next hour heading to my mum and dad's. Midway there, stuck in traffic, I had a brief conversation with Renee to update her on what was happening.

We had a brief argument. Renee was insistent I had to get home that night. I told her it was completely out of my control, I couldn't make the roads get cleared faster, and even when they did eventually clear, there would be a traffic snarl up for several hours more.

What Renee didn't tell me at the time was that since 4.30pm she'd been feeling pains in her stomach. She thought they weren't contractions, just some indigestion or Braxton Hicks. But they had her worried enough that she'd downloaded a contraction timing app on her phone. I carried onto my parents' completely unaware. Renee didn't want me to panic and end up getting stuck in traffic.

After filling up on dinner at mum and dad's, I crashed on their couch, utterly exhausted from what had already been a busy couple of days. My head pounded with a migraine which, despite some painkillers, refused to fade away. Renee flicked me a few more messages insisting I come home, but still not mentioning that she was in labour. The road north was cleared around 6pm, but it wasn't until 8pm that Google maps showed traffic had dropped off. I decided then that I'd head for home, once more along strangely deserted roads.

Driving past Whenua Tapu I saw the massive slip that had blocked the road. The southbound lanes were still blocked, and there was an immense chunk missing from a gully in the hillside, illuminated ominously by floodlights as workers tried to clear it.

On arriving at home, walking through the door and dropping my bags in a state of physical and mental exhaustion, with a migraine that was still raging, Renee appeared in the doorway to the lounge. I gave her a quick kiss before announcing I was shattered, had a migraine, and was going to bed.

"I think I'm in labour."

"Wait, what? How long?"

"Since about 4.30pm. I didn't want you panicking and getting stuck in the traffic."

"Have you called the midwife?"

"Yeah, she said it was probably just indigestion and to keep an eye on it."

"How often have you been getting them?"

"I think about every 20 or 15 minutes. I downloaded an app and have been timing them."

Renee showed me her phone. I did a quick calculation. She'd been experiencing contractions around two minutes long every 10 minutes apart.

"I don't think this is a think you're in labour. You're definitely in labour."

As if on cue, Renee keeled over in pain as another came on. I asked the only question that mattered: "What do you need me to do?" For the next half an hour I spent each contraction rubbing her back. 

Renee decided we should try to get some rest, so we climbed into bed. She lasted one contraction before we decided that was a terrible idea. We called the midwife who, on hearing Renee was 10 minutes apart, decided to come down the road and check on her. While we waited, I spent the time between contractions running around like a headless chicken packing my hospital bag.

Renee's bag had been packed for weeks.

"Yep, you are very definitely in labour. About 5cm. We should probably head to Wellington. Is the road open?"

I confirmed it was open and after helping Renee into the back seat of the car, we once more headed back into Wellington. Along the way Renee's contractions spend up. Nine minutes. Then eight minutes. Then seven minutes. Then six. Each time I slowly counted to twenty for Renee to help her get through them.

Somewhere along the way, my migraine had vanished too. I joke now that there's nothing quite like child birth to cure my migraines. The reality is that the adrenaline of the moment probably solved it for me.

Pulling into Wellington hospital's car park at midnight the contractions were five minutes apart. Julie's first words when she joined us at the car were words I was glad she hadn't mentioned before we left.

"I'm glad you didn't pull over on the way in. I was worried we weren't going to make it before baby came."

For the next 2 hours and 52 minutes I managed to fall even more in love with Renee than I ever thought possible. She was absolutely phenomenal throughout labour, despite the huge amounts of pain and constant discomfort she was in. I stood there by her side, counting to twenty, sometimes to 10, slower, then faster, rubbing her back, getting water and food, and doing what little I could do to help out. I felt like everything I was doing was completely inadequate versus what she was going through, and the steely grit and determination she approached it with, combined with a dry sense of humour along the way, left me utterly in awe of her.

At about 2.52am we welcomed Alexander Philip Compton into the world. As I sat there, holding him in my arms against my bare skin, gazing at that cute, pudgy face that Renee and I had created together, I couldn't help but think back on how crazy the world had been for the past 53 hours.

Yet, in the midst of all that was going on, this precious little life had arrived. I leaned down, kissing him on the forehead as tears streamed from my eyes, and said to him,

"I'll love you forever Alex."