How to Survive an Earthquake

On September 4th 2010 at 4.35am, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale struck the city of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island. Very few were prepared for the quake, which lasted 40 seconds but seemed to go on forever.

During the early stages the power went out. So there we were, in the dark, wondering if our family had survived and if our house was still standing. I quickly found my iPhone and took a tentative look out of my window. I live in the small town of Lyttelton, high up on a hill overlooking the town and port area. The town was in total darkness—no street or house lights anywhere.

iPhone to the rescue

All landlines were down, but I had my iPhone and immediately called my mother. She was OK, but she didn't know where my son John was. (He lives in a small apartment on her property.) I told her to use her iPhone as a flashlight and to go and look for him. I hung up and called my eldest son, James who lives in the city of Christchurch with his partner. No answer.

Thankfully, I had placed my iPhone in its charging stand before going to bed. It was fully charged, which was good because I didn't know when I'd be able to charge it again. Then an aftershock came with more shaking. We were all to become very familiar with aftershocks. Since that fateful day, Christchurch has had almost 4,500 them, some very severe (last week there was a 5.1).

Checking the radio online

I just had to find out what was happening, but with no electricity I couldn't turn on CNN, and the only radio that didn't rely on electricity was out in my garage, i.e. the car! I then remembered I had a fantastic resource, namely my iPhone.

Tunin.FMA very quick search of the app store revealed New Zealand Radio Stations by Tunin.Fm ($4.99,; free Lite version,, an app that featured live Internet radio from Christchurch. Within a few minutes, I was listening to the first reports to come out of the city. I heard of buildings down across the city, closing roads. I worried that there would be fatalities, but it turned out that our strict building codes in NZ, combined with the time of the quake, meant that this quake was the largest to hit an urban area without a fatality.

Tunin.FM's Internet radio app gave me up-to-the-minute information about the disaster.

Tunin.FM - All stationsThen a SMS message came in from my eldest son, James. He was fine and was out driving around the city to check on his friends and partner's family. He told of buildings that had collapsed across roads and people wandering the streets wrapped in blankets not knowing what to do. How could this be happening to my city? What exactly was happening? I needed to know. I needed facts.

Second earthquake, worse than the first!

They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for earthquakes. At 12:51 pm on February 22, 2011, Christchurch was hit again by another massive earthquake. Although nominally smaller on the Richter scale (6.3 vs. September's 7.1), the second quake was located closer to Christchurch and closer to the surface of the earth. If fact, it was centered under the town of Lyttelton— my hometown. This combination resulted in greater devastation than the previous quake.

EarthquakeOnce again, I instantly started trying to contact my family. The phone service was extremely intermittent so SMS was the most reliable way to contact each other. I was again grateful that I had an almost fully charged iPhone as well as a new, fully charged iPad. This was to prove invaluable as we were without electricity for three days.

This is Tuam Street in the Christchurch central business district after the second quake. If you look carefully, you can see one of three parked cars buried under the rubble.

In the days that followed the quake, my iPad became our only means of watching news using the 3 News app (free, We also used The New Zealand Herald (iPad only: free, and Press Reader (free app, subscription fee required for service, In addition, video clips and news footage began to appear on YouTube within hours of the quake.

Email was also possible on both devices, and this greatly enhanced communication with relatives and friends overseas who found it difficult to telephone due to an overload of the phone system.

I work in the central business district of Christchurch. This area suffered extreme damage and, sadly, there were many fatalities this time. As I wrote this, there were 166 confirmed deaths. However, there are still many missing people and many collapsed buildings to search. The police expect this figure to rise to around 200.

News apps provide useful info

Safari yielded very little at first. However, within an hour it was apparent that the world knew of our disaster. Several more apps were useful in these early hours.

Facebook posts after 2nd earthquakeFlashlight (free,, which I always had thought to be a gimmick, was actually useful indoors. TVNZ (free, iPhone/iPod touch version:; iPad version:, Facebook (free,, and Multicam Christchurch ($0.99, were also helpful. The latter showed live webcam feeds around the city. Then came the news that the cell towers in the city were all operating on battery power, and we must limit our use of them to enable access by emergency services.

There were many Facebook posts (left) from concerned people from the USA and Australia following the 2011 earthquake. Traffic cams (right) provided up-to-the-minute views of different locations in Christchurch.

Keeping my business operating

Traffic camsA state of emergency had officially been declared in Christchurch. This held significance for me as the taxi company I own is part of our city's emergency response team and can be required to provide non-emergency transport. I attempted to contact my dispatching team, but the switchboard wasn't operating due to the power outage. The city of Christchurch is separated from Lyttelton by a 1.8km tunnel through the hills, but it was closed to all traffic until a damage assessment could take place. I couldn't do anything or go anywhere!

I finally got into Christchurch at 10.30am, 6 hours after the quake and was struck by the number of buildings that had collapsed or sustained obvious damage. When I arrived at my office, there was no electricity but thankfully, my staff members were all unharmed. I called my telephone company and had them switch my business service to my iPhone. This, combined with the battery backup for the radio system, meant that we could now start answering the phone and dispatch work by voice. Power was restored soon after, and by the end of that first day, power and water had been restored to 85 percent of the city.

Christchurch was on the road to recovery, and things were more or less back to normal until the second earthquake (see sidebar). My iPhone made a difference during the first days of recovery. The apps I mentioned in this article helped me greatly, allowing me to find and then disseminate critical information to friends and family as far away as Boston. It also helped to keep my business running and provide a very necessary service to the people of my city.

Be prepared for disasters

The lesson I learned from this experience is to be prepared for disasters—even if you're not in areas prone to earthquakes. Here are some suggestions:

  • Always put your iPhone in its charging stand before you go to bed. That way you will have the maximum battery level in an emergency. You may even wish to purchase an additional battery unit.

  • Install a live radio app for your area. You will have access to the latest news about what is happening in your area.

  • Flashlight apps are actually useful. They are not very good outdoors, but if you have no electricity and it's dark, they are an excellent light source indoors.

  • Use your iPhone to find out as much about your area as you can before you venture outdoors. Use Safari to search the Web, install a local news app with live feeds, get an app that displays local webcams, call others, and find out what's going on in your area. All these help you find out if it's safe to go out.

  • Make sure you have 3 days of water stored somewhere safe. You'll want enough for drinking and to keep yourself clean to prevent disease.

Additional Tips

  • Always know where the exits are when you enter a building, particularly side and rear exits. Front exits are often hazardous as decorative facades, particularly those on older buildings, can become unstable and fall on sidewalks. As tempting as it is to rush from a building as soon as you can, stop and check for falling debris before you exit a building.

  • Get under a table, desk or doorway and hang on. Desks and tables can move during the quake and may leave you exposed to falling debris.

  • Get used to carrying your phone on you at all times.
  • I recommend installing apps such as Emergency SOS ($4.19 or Send Alert ($7.99, These apps allow you to send an emergency text to your pre-programmed recipients, telling them you need help along with your location, all in one or two taps.

The iPhone comes to the rescue!
July-August 2011
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