The earthquake emigrants

Adrienne Slattery with her partner Tim Shannon, their son Henry and daughter Isabella at a picnic at Lake Tekapo on New Zealand's South Island.

Adrienne Slattery with her partner Tim Shannon, their son Henry and daughter Isabella at a picnic at Lake Tekapo on New Zealand's South Island.

Fri, Oct 26, 2012, 01:00

EVEN WHEN you move country, far from friends and family, life still has to go on. Myself and my partner are in earthquake-torn Christchurch with our two young kids and another on the way any day now. It is a challenge bringing up children away from their grandparents, but you can’t put your life on hold when you don’t know how long you will be away for.

Our decision to leave Ireland was a quick one. I was pregnant with our second child in 2010 when my partner Tim, who was working as a structural engineer in Dublin, lost his job over Christmas. We were faced with deciding whether to stay and have the baby in Dublin while relying on social welfare, or to emigrate and find work somewhere else.

We looked at the Middle East as a possibility and my parents were keen on us going to Canada, which would be a reasonably short flight from Ireland. But New Zealand made sense. Tim is from Christchurch, and we knew they were crying out for engineers to help to rebuild the city, which had been destroyed by a major earthquake just three months before.

We were due to leave on February 22nd, and woke up that morning to the news that there had been another devastating earthquake in Christchurch overnight. We panicked and had serious second thoughts, but our flights were booked and we were packed up ready to go, so we got on that plane.

We were leaving the economic disaster in Ireland behind and heading into a natural disaster in Christchurch.

We spent a week in Sydney before taking the flight to New Zealand. As we flew in over Christchurch airport, we saw the city lights and took that as a good sign. There was life there after all.

The rental market was really stretched here, so we took a massive risk and bought a house. The first weekend after we moved in, there was another earthquake. We hadn’t bought in Ireland because we couldn’t afford it in the boom and it was too risky when prices began to drop, but we were now thinking we had taken an even bigger risk buying here when our investment could literally crumble to the ground.

As it turns out, house prices have increased by 10 per cent in the area we live in since we bought in April 2011. There’s an accommodation shortage, because more than 100,000 houses are in need of repair and 10,000 need to be rebuilt.

We have experienced 3,000 aftershocks and four large earthquakes since we arrived. Every time the ground shakes it sends shivers up me. Our whole lives have adapted though, and we have learned to be earthquake aware. You constantly think about what is over your head.

The house is made from timber so we know we are reasonably safe in it.

It will sway and shake in an earthquake, but it won’t fall down. It had a few cracks in the ceiling and some broken glass when we bought it, but the damage was cosmetic and will be paid for by the government’s Earthquake Commission, which provides funding for properties with damage under $100,000 (€62,529).

I thought I would join a mother and baby group or the local library to meet new people when we arrived, but they were all closed because of the earthquake damage. A lady on the plane told me about the Christchurch Irish Society, and although I thought I would have little interest or intention of joining an Irish club, I gave them a call and they were amazing.

Some of the members have been here for eight or nine years, and they really helped me to settle in. Their numbers have swelled enormously this year with all the new Irish arriving over to work on the rebuild.

In most instances, the husbands come over a few months in advance, find a job and somewhere to live, and the wife and children join them afterwards.

If someone new arrives in my area, the society let me know and I go to meet them and their family. It is a great support network.

We left Ireland unsure whether we would stay, but once here we felt committed. The motto the council is using is Rise Up Christchurch, and I really believe it is going to be a great city when the rebuild is complete. The positivity is infectious.

Construction workers, architects and engineers are coming from all over the world, so it is an exciting time. The city will be designed, built and owned by Kiwis, Irish, English, and all the other nationalities who are making it their home. We all feel very part of it.

I am on maternity leave again but have a good job as a fire-safety engineer. The work-life balance for families is great, the kids have an active outdoor lifestyle because the weather is so good, and they are so young they don’t notice that the city is like a construction site.

It is hard for my parents, but they understand that we didn’t have a choice. We are lucky that they are young and able to travel. They came over to visit within a month of my daughter’s birth and will be here again at Christmas to see the third baby. We also met half way in San Francisco in March, because we want them to get to know the kids while they are young. Those visits are very important, and are factored into our savings.

I don’t think about the long term. We are here for as long as Ireland is in the situation it is in. The next five years will be lucrative for us here, and we will review things then. In the meantime, we are determined to make the most of it.

– In conversation with Ciara Kenny


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