Sunday, March 27, 2016

Quake city

The last time I visited Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, it was the year 2000, I was part of my school's debating team, and we were attending a Catholic Jubilee Festival. I know, simmer down, you can't handle the coolness. In typical fashion, I can't remember much of the city or where the homestay with a student from the local school was. I do remember we were horrified to be served microwave chicken, and that the family cut open their toothpaste so that you had to dip your toothbrush in to get the last dregs out of the roll.

As you may know, it's been just over 5 years since Christchurch was hit by the second of two major earthquakes. (There was actually a 5.7 earthquake there in February this year, but it didn't cause serious damage.) Basically, there was a huge earthquake in September 2010, which caused property damage and injuries. In February 2011, there was an aftershock, which was technically smaller, but actually much more destructive. This is because the epicentre was closer to the city, it was shallower, many buildings were already weakened by the initial earthquake and aftershocks, and because it was in the middle of the day, so many people were on the streets and in tall office buildings. 185 people were killed and there was widespread property damage.

I heard of the earthquakes at the time, of course, and I know it received international coverage because for a while friends and colleagues would ask if my family or people I knew were affected (they were safe over 1000 kilometres away). But these things fall off the news cycle pretty quickly when they're in a far-away country, so after the first couple of weeks I only very sporadically saw any updates on the city, and probably assumed things were more or less back to normal, five years on.

Once I got to New Zealand, a few people asked whether we would be visiting Christchurch, and said we would probably be shocked by the extent of damage that still exists. We were planning to stop there to break our drive, basically, and I also wanted to visit the "cardboard cathedral", but remarks like this actually made me more interested to visit the city and see what it was like. I don't know if this counts as "disaster tourism", or if I can dress it up in the guise of wanting to support the city. Where is the line - is it how many people died, how much time has passed, the impact of your presence on the locals, or your own motivations? It felt somewhat ghoulish taking photos of damaged buildings, but on the other hand, by this stage life was continuing more or less as normal in the city (although I imagine its residents may not always agree), so it didn't feel like we were in people's faces exploiting their misery for our own edification.

After people told me I would be surprised by the extent of the damage, I suppose I got an idea in my head that we would be seeing buildings with huge cracks or tilted over, or half intact and half fallen down. That is, buildings that looked obviously affected by an earthquake. My impressions were kind of different. Most buildings looked not clearly damaged, but more like old abandoned houses. Much of the city was a cross between a huge building site and a ghost town. Most things looked more shabby and run down than earthquake-damaged. My best guess is that the most damaged and dangerous buildings (that might fall down in a future earthquake) were demolished as a priority. The buildings that remain, that looked abandoned but not damaged, presumably have structural problems that mean they have been declared unsafe to live in, but have just sat there empty, getting more and more dilapidated over the last five years.

One memory I have from the 2000 trip is of the Christchurch cathedral, an old and iconic building by New Zealand standards. I had heard it was severely damaged in the quake, and there are ongoing arguments of what to do with it (restore it exactly as it was, build something completely new, or do an old/new hybrid). I had also heard of the "cardboard cathedral", a temporary structure meant to fill the gap until the old cathedral is somehow fixed. As the nickname suggests, reinforced cardboard tubes were used in its construction, although apparently not as extensively as the architect had wanted. According to Wikipedia, the "Wizard of New Zealand" called it "kitsch" (I'm rolling my eyes just typing that phrase), but I thought it was lovely. What a great and bold idea to make something iconic and different rather than any old church. I can definitely sympathise with those who want to restore the existing cathedral as it was, but I'm happy they went with something innovative for this temporary solution. Would people want to travel from around the world or across the country to see an old-fashioned brick church, a pale imitation of the original cathedral let alone any old parish church in the UK? I don't think so. 

Even though I like the cardboard cathedral, it was sad to see what the original cathedral looks like these days. Here's what it used to look like:

And here's what it looks like today:

While we were there, we visited "Quake City", a small museum which shows the impact of the earthquake and explains why it was so destructive. It definitely gave me a better idea of what people went through - I didn't realise, for example, that the sewage system was knocked out, so people had to make their own longdrop toilets. It helped you realise that even if you were lucky enough to have a home and safety, daily life must have been hard for a long time. The reality of life after a major disaster is quite a chilling thought, since the whole of New Zealand is basically built on fault lines and volcanoes. And if this is how a first-world country copes with the aftermath of a disaster, I shudder to think of life in places like Haiti after the gaze of the world moves on.

The remains of the cathedral's rose window

There were plenty of signs of regeneration and rebuilding, however. They seem to be taking the opportunity provided by the disaster - an astonishing 80% of buildings in the central city either have been or will be demolished - to purposefully reshape the city, rather than just haphazardly rebuilding. The idea is generally to have different zones - precincts focused on business, health, culture etc., with enhanced transport links and more green spaces. Although the plan is yet to come to fruition, there are already encouraging signs - the cardboard cathedral, but also a cool outdoor mall we visited, housed in old shipping containers. (After visiting the shipping container mall, we followed Google Maps a block or so to go to another mall, only to find it was shut down and abandoned. You'd think after five years Google would be on top of that?)

The shipping container mall

Street art in the city

A new Antony Gormley sculpture, "Stay", in the river
Overall, our stop in Christchurch was definitely something different compared to the rest of our trip, but I'm glad we did. 


  1. Loved this post. It is so interesting and informative! Even though I live in NZ and have been hearing about Christchurch for five years, your photos gave me more understanding of what it is actually like. I know some people were still living in makeshift accommodation, like caravans, last winter, and I was astonished that it could still be like that in this country. The insurance settlement process has been incredibly slow. I get the impression the people who have stayed are getting close to desperate and the recent aftershocks must have shredded their nerves I'm sure. As you say, it is hard to keep in your mind once it goes off the news, but for the people it is a daily reality. Mostly these days we hear about all the rebuilding and all the workers that are needed and how many are brought in from overseas. It was interesting to see the shipping container shops - what a long way there is still to go!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, we saw some signs complaining about the insurance settlements. The shipping containers were cool, actually!

  2. As a regular visitor to Christchurch, what I found most striking are the huge empty spaces around the old city centre that apparently are now deemed too unstable to ever build on again. The other thing that I heard only a few weeks ago is that the earthquakes are not from "traditional" faults such as the alpine fault but from fractures in an ancient volcanic field, (Lyttelton harbour is an old crater).

    1. I didn't realise either of those things, thanks!

  3. Did you see that there was a huge flood at Franz Josef too? The hotel was washed out after the river broke its banks!

    1. No, looks like we had good timing, missing earthquakes and floods.


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