Earthquake Damage, Lyttleton, New Zealand
Earthquake Damage, Lyttleton, New Zealand

As I write this we are tidying up after a massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake in New Zealand. The sensational reported by both local and overseas media makes it hard for tourists to get a real view of what's happening here.  So I'm writing this to  add some reality to the discussion and to  give overseas visitors the information they need if they do get caught in a quake.

What to do in an earthquake

The Civil Defence information is drilled into New Zealanders, but I totally understand why those coming from less dynamic countries  may not know what to do when the ground starts shaking.


Drop to the ground - or look for a doorway. Cover yourself with something solid - like a table -  particularly your head. Hold hold on - if you are under a table hold the table - if you are in a doorway brace yourself. 

Some stuff you may not know about a strong earthquake.

  • You won't be able to stand up or move easily. The 14 November shake struck at midnight - so many of us were in bed - where some of stayed because it didn't  feel that bad. In the 2010 Christchurch earthquake which struck in the early hours, people described being thrown from their beds.
  • If you are outside in a city or town - you are safer inside or least in a doorway.
  • If you are in an older building with a brick chimney - move away from the chimney - they are the things that make for the best disaster photos...
  • If you are driving - you may feel as if you've suddenly got a puncture. Pull over is the official advice. But if you are under a cliff (and a lot of NZ roads are) - personally I'd be accelerating to moe open space - I've seen too many pictures of rock falls to park under a cliff face.

Things NOT to do during an Earthquake.

  • Don't run outside.  People died in Christchurch from falling masonry.   New Zealand has good earthquake building standards - stay away from heavy light fixtures, windows and take cover in doorways. The main damaged in Wellington in the 2016 earthquake was shattered glass in the streets -  if the quake had struck at midday not midnight there would have been injuries from that glass.
  • Don't call home -  text instead. Saves the overloading of the systems.

Immediately After The Shaking Stops

  • Stay where you are if you are safe. The shaking may start again. The first shake may not be the strongest. Even if  it is the strongest, the next shake may bring down already damaged debris.  Masonry was still falling in Wellington's CBD  the following night because of aftershocks taking down already loosened materials.
  • BUT if you smell smoke or gas - evacuate immediately.
  • If you are by the beach, sea, river or estuary. AND the shaking was severe (ie you'd had trouble moving during it) AND it lasted for more than a minute - head to higher ground. There may be a tsunami and it may arrive within minutes so there will be no notification from authorities.
  • It should be obviousto NOT go to the beach imeediately after a quake. Just. Don't.

After The Quake

If you are a in a large multistory hotel in a city you will probably be told to evacuate - you will have to go outside and stand in a designated area which will be clear of overhead dangers. This is NOT an immediate evacuation - normally office buildings hold workers for about 30 minutes before asking them to leave (because of the risks described above).

The tsunami risk is real in New Zealand  most of the country is near the sea - there are hazard maps published by local authorities, and you may see blue "tsunami zones" painted on the roads in some towns such as Wellington. However as a visitor you may not think to check these details when choosing a hotel or campsite!

If  you are near the sea and you hear sirens after a big quake - they are tsunami warning sirens- go to higher ground. Fortunately in New Zealand that doesn't need to be far - up the nearest hill will be fine.

Kiwi Hospitality and Maraes

The news reports out of Kaikoura is that a lot of tourists ended up at the marae - the Maori meeting house is not just a pretty cultural artifact  - they are living community centres. Marae re designed to cook and sleep large groups so are often used for emergency accommodation after a disaster.

If you end up at a marae - you'll be sleeping on the floor on mattresses. There won't be a lot of formal protocol but leave your shoes at the door, and  accept the hospitality you are offered graciously.  Many (not all marae) are also dry (no booze).

Staying in Touch

I'll admit that the first thing I did after the shaking stopped in Wellington was to jump on my computer and update Facebook that I was OK - I have family and friends overseas and that's the easiest way to deal with that. I did it fast not sure if the power would go off (it did in parts of Wellington). If you still have cell phone coverage - do a social media update first - it's quicker than sending individual texts/email to people.

IF you have power and/or cell phone coverage Twitter is the best place for breaking information #eqnz is the usual hastag. Facebook is pretty good too.

The very best of traditional media in New Zealand is RNZ (aka Radio New Zealand) - a public funded broadcaster. Their live blog after the quake was accurate and unsensational.

Should I Cancel My Planned New Zealand Trip?

The headlines around the world give the impression that New Zealand is destroyed. Yes there have been fatalities - two of them - one of which was a heart attack. Yes there is devastation - of some road links it may take a few days to clear a road into Kaikoura - meanwhile we're using helicopters and ships.

None of the international airports ever stopped operating - if flights are cancelled today it's due to the weather not earthquakes.

If you have got booked activiies / accommodation in Kaikoura and are arriving in the next week you may need to make alternative arrangements. They probably haven't been responding to your calls/emails due ot the lack of power.

If you have Kaikoura bookings for more than a week out I'd wait a few days,  watch the RNZ site, and  make contact in a few days as the power is restored.

The  ferries are now running for vehicle traffic - not for foot passengers - that should be fixed within days.

The Picton to Christchurch train line may be out of action for months. The rest of the rail system should be running today.

There is an alternative driving route between Christchurch and Picton - via the Lewis Pass - allow an extra three hours.


  1. Heather on November 15, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Well said Lis! Forwarding to a USA group I’m guiding in March 2917

    • Elisabeth Sowerbutts on November 15, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      Exciting Heather – are you guiding them in New Zealand?

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