The Devastation and Rebirth of Christchurch, New Zealand


Members of the Volunteer Student Army clear silt that bubbled to the surface in the wake of the February 22, 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

By contrast, western parts of the city – including our own place – escaped with only major damage. Mostly this is due to the nature of the soil, and a deeper water table.


Yet, catastrophe that it was, experts concur the Christchurch earthquake could have been a lot worse. If the shaking had continued for much longer – the worst of the shaking apparently lasted just 12 seconds – more deaths would have resulted. Most important, New Zealand’s building codes, which specify being able to withstand earthquakes, had played a major role.

Many old nineteenth and early twentieth century brick buildings in the city center had been neglected by their owners and not reinforced. It came as no surprise that these buildings collapsed. Some fine stone historic buildings, including Christchurch’s iconic Anglican cathedral, the Catholic basilica, and the Provincial Council chamber, were also destroyed.

However, it wasn’t just old buildings that fared badly. Many newer buildings also sustained irreparable damage. The CTV building, where most of the deaths occurred, was only 25 years old. It twisted and pancaked, crushing those inside in seconds. A few people miraculously escaped. The failure of the building, which along with others has been the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, has been put down to poor design and construction.

In some high-rises, stairwells sheared away from their supports. Other newer buildings, such as the 26-story Hotel Grand Chancellor, toppled perilously sideways but remained upright. It is being demolished. One big hotel, the Crowne Plaza, is also coming down, like many buildings that seem outwardly intact. However, for some newer buildings, the main design and engineering considerations at the planning stage were not saving the building, but saving lives – a role they fulfilled.

Sports grounds, such as the popular AMI Stadium, were badly damaged. Christchurch’s allocated matches for the upcoming Rugby World Cup had to be canceled.