The Devastation and Rebirth of Christchurch, New Zealand


The Hotel Grand Chancellor leaned sideways and is being demolished.

In the outlying town of Kaiapoi, many homes were badly hit. More damage occurred in the eastern and beach suburbs, which border the Pacific Ocean. The sandy soil began to bubble and liquefaction – a slushy mix of muddy and water – erupted to the surface. Many houses were damaged. A footbridge over the Avon river was twisted out of shape.


In the city center, many two-story brick buildings dating from the nineteenth century were heavily damaged. A jewelers store collapsed. Fire broke out in another old building. Aftershocks, some powerful, continued.

At our place, water and power were quickly restored. Apart from toppled speakers and bookcases, and cracks in the plasterwork, our home had emerged unscathed. It soon became clear that Christchurch had been very lucky. Damage had been confined to buildings. Nobody had been killed. It was also lucky that the earthquake had occurred in the early morning hours when the population slept.

But worse – much worse – was still to come.

September 4 was a big earthquake. Its precise location was a surprise. New Zealand sits on the boundary between the Pacific and Australian plates, part of the so-called “Ring of Fire” that includes southeast Asia and Japan, and North and South America. New Zealand’s alpine fault resembles California’s San Andreas fault. So New Zealanders, like Californians, expect earthquakes. But the alpine fault lies several hundred miles to the west of Christchurch. This was a new, entirely unknown fault. Enraptured geologists from around the world descended on Christchurch to marvel at the scars that had been ripped across the pastoral landscape. Kids played in newly formed trenches on farmland.