Maine students, professors OK after earthquake

Posted Feb. 23, 2011, at 9:04 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Students and staffers from universities in Orono and Presque Isle who are in New Zealand for school and work purposes were not harmed by the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that hit the country on Tuesday, university officials and family members confirmed Wednesday.

The 3-mile deep temblor struck in Christchurch and brought down high-rise buildings, tore up pavements, and sprayed rubble onto the streets, killing more than 75 people with the death count expected to rise in the coming days.

Joanne Putnam, a professor of education at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, is in New Zealand visiting her son, Aaron, 28, who is a doctoral candidate with the University of Maine Climate Change Institute in Orono. David Putnam, Joanne’s husband and Aaron’s father, is a lecturer of science at UMPI. He said Wednes-day afternoon that his wife went to the country to visit their son and also to meet with education colleagues. He said that Aaron Putnam is conducting research with Dr. George Denton of the UMaine Climate Change Institute, along with another UMaine student.

David Putnam and UMaine officials confirmed Wednesday that all are fine and were not in Christchurch at the time of the quake. University officials also said that the two UMaine students and Denton are the only university people in New Zealand at this time. A larger party of students and staff returned to Maine in January.

Putnam said that his wife and son were in Twizel, approximately 150 miles southwest of Christchurch, when the quake struck.

“I got a call from Aaron right after the quake, and he told me that he was OK,” the father said Wednesday. “Until he called, I didn’t even know there had been an earthquake. I hadn’t had a chance to check the news yet. He said that he hadn’t heard from his mother, so he hung up and got in touch with her, and then called back to tell me that she was OK. I later got a short e-mail from her. She said that Internet and cell phone service was very spotty, but she’d found a place where she was able to get a signal to send an e-mail.”

Putnam said that his son was in the mountains working when the quake struck.

“He told me that he felt it,” he said. “He said that it felt like the ground rolled under him, like it was a swell at sea.”

Joanne Putnam was driving in a car at the time.

“She told me that she felt sick, like she was dizzy and nauseous,” he said. “She pulled the car over and then realized that she felt that way because the ground was moving.”

According to the UMaine website, Denton’s projects deal with the alpine glacier history of the Chilean Andes and the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Putnam said that his son goes to New Zealand for a couple of months every year, and is scheduled to return to the United States at the end of March.

His wife had planned to stay in the country for a few more weeks and travel to other parts of New Zealand.

“I haven’t heard from them since the initial phone calls and e-mail, so I have no idea how this will affect their plans,” Putnam said Wednesday. “I know that everything in that part of the country is on hold as they work to get people out of the rubble.”

As of early Wednesday evening, 200 people still were missing in the quake zone, 80 percent of the city was without water and about 40 percent of the city had no power.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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