The date was Tuesday, Feb. 22. The time was 12:51 p.m. when central Christchurch was busy with shoppers, and workers on their lunch breaks. For 24 seconds, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked the city. Many locals reported being flung violently and almost vertically into the air, and scientists reported the peak ground acceleration exceeded 1.8, almost twice the acceleration of gravity.
|Christchurch Cathedral, before and after|
The spire of the iconic Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Cathedral Square was destroyed; the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament less than two kilometers away was also heavily damaged. Walls and verandas had cascaded down on shopping and strip malls, and two multi-story buildings had pancaked.
In the top photo, a popular postcard by Dave Foster of Post Art Ltd., shows the cathedral before the quake. The photo below shows the way it looks today.
A total of 185 people were killed, including 115 who died when the six-story Canterbury Television building collapsed.
Immediately after the quake, most news photos and video of the damage showed a downtown area that looked like a parking lot filled with rubble. Today, it more closely resembles a parking lot swept clean. Many of the major buildings that either fell down or had to be taken down are gone, and work is underway to repair and restore many others that were less badly damaged.
While it might seem macabre in a sense, the story of the earthquake and the subsequent, ongoing recovery is something that should not be missed.
|Canterbury Chief Post Office|
The tour goes through Cathedral Square, past the ruins of the Christchurch Cathedral with weeds growing through the pavement and rust forming on the supporting I-beams. Directly across from the square stands the Canterbury Chief Post Office building, its doors and the clock in the clock tower boarded up and silent.
Less than a mile away, the bus passes the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. So badly damaged was this building that engineers used a camera-equipped drone to assess the inside of the structure rather than risk the safety of one of their own.
Returning to the central business district, the tour turns toward some of the more positive aspects of the recovery, including one of the most amazing things to come out of the disaster. At the corner of Hereford and Madras Streets is the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral or, as it is called by many locally, the Cardboard Cathedral, a name I am told that many of the parishioners loathe.
|Christchurch Transitional Cathedral|
A block south of the Cardboard Cathedral is an artist’s installation of 185 chairs that represent those killed in the quake. As no two people are the same, the artist determined that no two chairs should be alike.
Farther north, where Manchester Street meets the Avon River, sits one of the most recently completed projects: the Margaret Mahy Playground. Driving by on the sunny Mother’s Day Sunday I was in town, it had obviously become an instant hit.
The Christchurch City Council Chambers are being rebuilt a couple of blocks away, work has started to turn the former Forsyth Barr building a block north of the Christchurch Cathedral into a new Crowne Plaza hotel, and the empty lot that sits kitty-corner is the site for the city's new convention center.
In the downtown core, just east of the World War II memorial the Bridge of Remembrance is the area’s temporary business center, the Re:START Mall.
The story of the earthquake, including some amazing video of a building as it collapses during the quake, is told vividly at Quake City. An arm of the Canterbury Museum, Quake City occupies a storefront across from Re:START Mall and has a wide variety of static and interactive displays that provide a bit of the area’s history. It also includes a chronicling of the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and a cataloging of their effects. It is well worth the price of admission.
Much accomplished, much yet to be done
Shortly after the quake, political and business leaders as well as ordinary citizens saw that the devastation had provided the area with a unique opportunity.
“How many times do you get to re-invent your city?” more than one local said during my visit. But, as so often happens, the ideal came into conflict with reality.
Consensus, it turned out, was not easy to come by. While civic leaders and concerned citizens agreed that the city could be rebuilt better and stronger, that was where the agreement ended. The “how” became the bugaboo.
In the five years since the quake, some consensus has emerged. The city plans to widen Manchester Street, a main north-south thoroughfare, adding additional bus lanes and a protected bike bath. Building codes have been updated and new buildings will be limited to seven stories in height.
|Christchurch Cathedral at present|
Around the area, empty lots are ubiquitous. Reasons range from owners who are banking on the future and holding their vacant land to those who refuse to accept that their land no longer has the value it once held, to parcels that are tied up in probate because their owners have died, either during or since the quake.
Finally, the recovery is slow by U.S. standards because New Zealand does not have a disaster relief infrastructure like the one that exists in the United States. There is no organization or government ministry analogous to FEMA to assist municipalities or the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to lend money to disaster victims at low interest rates to facilitate rebuilding. The recovery is being, and will continue to be, funded by insurance claims – not all of which are settled – and private funds.
As a result, some residents estimate the area’s full recovery could take a generation. And while that is unfortunate, the people with whom I spoke are generally making the best of things, happy to be getting on with their lives, and more than willing to talk with visitors about what they went through and how their lives were changed a little more than five years ago.
It may not be the most serene or beautiful place one could visit, but one of the reasons we travel is to become acquainted with and understand other people and other cultures. The opportunities for that in Christchurch are abundant, and will be for some time to come.
Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.
Photos by Carl Dombek unless otheriwse noted
Click on photos to view larger images