The Devastation and Rebirth of Christchurch, New Zealand


Aftershocks have continued over the last year – more than 10,000 since September 4, 2010. Many have been over magnitude 4.0, which is enough to jolt you awake and cause concern. The biggest so far have been a magnitude 6.0 on June 13 and another magnitude 6.0 on December 23 – both violent quakes that resulted in more damage and more liquefaction. For residents, stress has been a daily reality.

In the weeks following the February 22 quake, we collected water from tankers and later from an artesian well – it still tastes nicer – and perfected our ”survival kit.” (We had already got together water containers for a potential emergency.) In addition to water containers, we rounded up a camp stove, flashlights, radio, canned food, and a solar camp shower. That was great: We could heat it in the sun, top it up with boiled water, and suspend it over our shower so we could scrub ourselves clean. In tough times nothing seems so heavenly as a nice hot shower!

We were lucky: Despite severely damaged underground pipes, engineers worked tirelessly to restore the supply, and we were back on again in under two weeks. Other people had to make do with chemical toilets and portaloos for months. Some households still have them.

Plumbers do a brilliant job! Plumbing is surely one of the most vital yet under-appreciated achievements of civilization.

With a high-speed internet connection, I have worked out of my home office for the last year. Fulltime newspaper employees relocated to portacabins near the airport. There is no indication when they may return to the city.

Other businesses closed or relocated. Thousands of people left Christchurch, many lured by better paid jobs – and less shaky homes – in other cities and overseas, and who can blame them?

I biked over rutted and cracked streets to the east side to visit a landlady whose retirement dreams had been shattered. The house, in Avonside, was, in the new earthquake lexicon, “munted” – completely wrecked. Other neighboring homes built on concrete floor slabs, were also subsiding into the ground.

Another landlady, Liz Harris. took me past an Army checkpoint into the “red zone” in the central city to show me some of her dozens of rental homes that were in a sorry state; most have now been destroyed. Yet Harris is determined to rebuild.

Property owner Ernest Duvall is a staunch advocate for Christchurch. He took me through the checkpoint and showed me his inner-city hotel, now renamed The Rendezvous. At thirteen stories, The Rendezvous is now Christchurch’s tallest building. Duvall remains upbeat. Steel framed construction is now a rarity in New Zealand, but Duvall attributes the building’s resilience to the flexibility of steel. Next-door, his steel framed, glass-façade Cathedral Junction arcade also survived intact. Next-door to that, the new seven-story Press building has ultra strong reinforced concrete construction. Its designers, too, are confident it can withstand another strong quake.