The Devastation and Rebirth of Christchurch, New Zealand


(The Port Hills are the remnants of an ancient extinct volcano. Scientists categorically dismissed speculation that the volcano was coming back to life – although studies into the region’s geology continue, and scientists concede much is still not known about what lies beneath.

According to the Maori, the rumbling of the atua, or god Ruaumoko, the unborn child of Papatuanuku, causes earthquakes as he restlessly moves inside his mother’s womb. Ruaumoko is known for his furious outbursts, which explain the many earthquakes and volcanoes that occur in Aotearoa (New Zealand).)

Again, many buildings were sealed off while engineers conducted checks. The Press newspaper building, a century old neo-gothic stone building where I worked part-time, was red-stickered. That meant it was a dangerous building. Staff could not enter. You could see large cracks inside and out. The eastern side was braced. Staff relocated to a nearby hotel. Then they were told the old building was safe to reenter. The newspaper was planning to move into a new building soon.

Moving back would prove to be a big mistake. Checks on many buildings would prove woefully inadequate. In the words of Mayor Bob Parker, the September quake would prove to be merely a ghastly dress rehearsal.

The next big quake struck savagely, and like all quakes, utterly without warning. It was 12:51 p.m. on February 22, a Tuesday.

Unlike in September, the city was packed with office workers. I had just had my lunch and was browsing the shelves on the second floor of the city library. The floor began to twist and buckle. It felt like being on a ship in a storm. Women screamed. I staggered to a massive concrete pillar and braced myself against it, underneath an equally massive concrete beam. I figured if the beams collapsed there was nothing I could do. After about 40 seconds, the shaking stopped. Pale staff silently ushered shocked patrons downstairs and out of the building.

Everywhere sirens and alarms were shrilling. I quickly called my wife who was at home. (The cell phone worked sporadically. Some networks failed.) She was OK. I told her I would head back to The Press and call back. I saw a fallen motorcycle. Perhaps I could retrieve my own scooter from The Press? A dumb thought, but at that time I had absolutely no idea how bad the quake had been. It turned out I had been in a brilliant building, a postmodern reinforced concrete structure designed by one of the city’s leading architects, Sir Miles Warren. (The building’s future remains uncertain, however, as a neighboring parking building fell onto it.)