Sunday morning dawned blustery, with scudding clouds interspersed with sunshine. My friend and I found Procope, a lovely little coffee shop, open on a Sunday morning for a welcome coffee and an excellent bite to eat, then we walked into Christchurch’s CBD. Every street had empty blocks, traffic cones, detours, wire fencing, cranes, and construction sites.
The wrecked cathedral is the outstanding reminder of the earthquakes that devastated the city in 2010/11, around 7 years ago. There used to be a spire where that metal brace stands. For the rest, the town is full of large open spaces where buildings used to stand. All these years later, the scars remain – although new, modern, (ugly) earthquake-safe structures have started to rise.
The first earthquake struck at 4:35am on 4th September, 2010. The magnitude 7.1 quake damaged many buildings, but only one person died and a few were injured. For the following year the area was shaken by thousands of shocks and after-shocks. A serious quake on Boxing Day 2010 caused more damage, and then another serious earthquake occurred on 22nd Feb, 2011, taking down buildings already weakened by the previous activity. 185 people died in that quake, many of them inside buildings that collapsed.
It’s not just the damaged buildings, though. When the earth moved it destroyed sewerage pipes and water pipes, took down power lines, and buckled railway lines. Soil became mud and roads and buildings sank into the ground. All the fabric of modern society was destroyed. Portaloos were distrbuted and water was a problem for months. Understandably, many people moved away from Christchurch.
I think you can’t get a feel for what has been lost unless you talk to people who knew, and loved, what was there before. Everybody has a story to tell about the quakes. I mentioned the bus driver who had managed hostels destroyed in the CBD. She was grateful no one she knew was among the 185 people killed. I spoke to the cleaning lady at the hotel, who said she still lives in her damaged home, and she’s still waiting for some sort of repairs through her insurance company. I remember hearing about the quakes on Facebook, all those years ago. One of my friends was forced to leave her home because it was unsafe – but that didn’t deter the looters. She lost valuables, but also irreplacable mementoes. She certainly wasn’t the only one.
B had friends in Christchurch – we’ll call them W and S – and they took us on a city tour. They filled in the holes, so to speak, telling us what used to be in the empty spaces, or what was where that horrible piece of modern architecture now stands.
Nature bounces back. That basic fact was underlined as we drove past tracts of what we thought were extensive parkland that were actually places where suburbs had stood. The land has been cleared, but you can still see the streets, the trees people used to have in their gardens, the edges of the properties. In many areas people still live in their damaged houses, with the holes and damage covered up as best they can.
B’s friends’ house was also badly damaged. The house had two solid chimney stacks, and the rest of the building more or less twisted around those two structures. They were fortunate to be able to relocate to their holiday home at Akaroa – and they had insurance. We admired the house as it is now, a lovely, bright home with a gorgeous, productive garden. But S talked about what she’d lost, what used to be there, small things like tiles over the fireplace, large things like reorganised rooms.
S in particular still mourns for the beautiful buildings lost in the town. She said she never goes to the city now, and I can understand why. Some buildings have been restored to their former glory and there’s talk of restoring the cathedral, but W says there’ll be many arguments before that happens.
Every person we spoke to about the earthquake said the situation had been poorly handled, with everyone pointing a finger at somebody else. You can’t stop mother Nature – but rebuilding is something that must be done by people. Contrast the city of Napier, also devastated by earthquake, which took that unfortunate event as an opportunity to reinvent itself. The city has been rebuilt in Art Deco style (which it was not) and is very popular with tourists. In contrast, while there’s talk of restoring the old cathedral, nothing has happened so far.
The epicentre of the earthquake was quite a distance from the CBD near Lyttelton, Christchurch’s main harbour. Our hosts pointed out coastal features which had been changed forever – rocks split, collapsed Maori caves, whole hillsides that slipped onto the road or into the sea. I remember seeing footage on TV of houses balanced precariously on the edge of precipices created when the land collapsed beneath them. Here, too, people are still waiting for the insurance companies to do something.
But through all this, the countryside is beautiful. We drove up winding roads to admire views over the harbour and the city, spectacular despite the gale force winds. Wind surfers – braver souls than me – rode the wind and waves, and we even spied a board rider out there.
Having seen the sights, we adjourned to B’s friends’ lovely home for drinks, nibbles and an excellent dinner – with superb NZ wine. Much of the meal incorporated home grown fruit and vegetables. The quince crumble dessert was lovely with ice cream. They make their own olive oil, too, which appeared in a hummus made from chick peas, fresh peas – and the wonderful olive oil.
Uber took us back to our accommodation. Tomorrow we’ll do a little more exploring outside the city.