By Christina Wilkie - 02/23/11 05:01 PM EST
Nine members of Congress and a delegation of aides were in Christchurch, New Zealand on Tuesday, less than three hours before a devastating magnitude-6.3 earthquake rocked the nation’s second largest city and claimed at least 65 lives.
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) was among them, and he spoke to ITK from Wellington, New Zealand, about the experience.
“Wow,” Larsen said. “We left Christchurch on Tuesday morning for Wellington, but the Christchurch we drove away from is really different from the one that’s there today.”
Tila Larsen, the congressman’s wife, was also on the trip, as were a number of congressional staffers.
The lawmaker said, “We were in a meeting in Wellington with members of Parliament at the time the earthquake happened. But instead of learning of the quake the old way, from a staff member, the Christchurch MPs all got BlackBerry alerts. Needless to say, the meeting ended soon after.”
Larsen said the news of the quake was especially eerie given how close the group came to extending its stay in Christchurch to make up for a delayed departure following last week’s contentious marathon House session, which lasted into Saturday morning.
“I suppose after last week’s late-night debates, and now this, some people might ask, ‘What else could go wrong?’ ” Larsen said, “But I feel like in life you have a plan, and then life says, ‘You’ll be doing something else.’ We’re here to communicate the thoughts and prayers of the American people in a time of need.”
Larsen has a unique connection to Christchurch — it’s the sister city of Seattle, his state’s biggest metropolis, and he said support for Kiwis affected by the quake has been pouring in from his constituents.
But the concerns about safety run both ways. Larsen said his friend Rachel Jacobsen, New Zealand’s honorary consul in Seattle, phoned Larsen’s mom after the earthquake to make sure Larsen and his wife were OK.
Larsen met with New Zealand’s foreign minister, John Allen, hours after the quake, and along with the American ambassador, David Huebner, “immediately offered help, including disaster relief funding, infrastructure and expertise.”
“The thing I want people to know is that Christchurch got hit really hard, and there are still people missing and still people being recovered. They need our thoughts and prayers right now.”
Between the late nights in the House last week and the jet-lag of a 16-hour time difference, Larsen admitted that sleep hasn’t been coming easily.
“I had my first full night’s sleep in a while last night,” he said, “but that’s because I took an Ambien.”