“Ive just been watching my old offices being pulled down.”
“Weird isn’t it – I had to watch mine on video as we weren’t allowed nearby.”
Just a snippet of the conversation behind me in the corrugated steel shipping container-cum-coffee shop where I’m waiting for a cappuccino in the centre of earthquake-hit Christchurch.
Since February last year, this has become a normal conversation in this southern New Zealand city. A few blocks away, I’d just been watching yet another building being pulled down, as the long, ongoing process of flattening an entire city centre and rebuilding the whole lot from scratch continues.
Almost every high-rise building in the CBD is set to be demolished – or deconstructed, to coin the phrase being used here – after the 6.3 magnitude quake wrecked foundations and left entire swathes of the city in ruins. Along with the devastation to the city and infrastructure, the February 22 disaster claimed the lives of 189 people, and daily life in this part of the south island shuddered to an abrupt halt.
It was the nightmare scenario many believed the area had avoided, after an even greater earthquake just a few months previous. Back in September 2010, the area was shaken by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, which caused damage but no deaths. The city lies right on top of previously unknown fault lines between two tectonic plates, a part of the infamous Pacific ring of fire. But people in New Zealand are familiar with their country’s unique geological make-up, and when the first major quake struck in 2010, causing relatively minor damage and injuries, there was a belief that the area and its people had dodged a bullet.
But there was a major difference in the type of earthquake that struck last year. In the first earthquake in 2010, the two plates largely slipped side by side, and in a much deeper location some six miles underground. In February last year, it was much shallower, at three miles deep, and there was a huge vertical shift – so much so, the hills around the city rose by an estimated 40cm in an instant. With the epicentre just 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of the country’s second largest city, there was only going to be one outcome.
Almost 18 months on, and parts of the city centre are still so unsafe, the public are kept away. Known as the red zone it covers most of the central area, and while some parts have recently reopened, there is still a long way to go with demolition work before the rest of the city is made safe.
Yet this is a city, that despite its loss and devastation, is already looking forward. Speak to anyone on the streets, and it is more than likely you’ll get the strange response that the earthquake, aside from the loss of life, could actually be a good thing for the area.
“It means we can start again. It’s quite exciting,” said one taxi driver as he drove me around the edge of the red zone.
And inside the city centre, there are already the green shoots of recovery thanks to one of the most surprising and novel ideas – the Re:Start Mall, an entire shopping precinct full of stores and cafes trading again from inside brightly-painted shipping containers.
“I don’t know who thought about the containers, but it’s a great idea as we needed something to stimulate the city again,” says Bronwyn Jones, an assistant at Johnson’s Grocers.
“Christchurch is nothing like it was, and you need something positive to give people something to look forward to, to bring the community together again and be joyful.”
The owner, Colin Johnson, had been feared killed in the earthquake after the imported foods and produce he specialises in were shaken from the shelves, landing on top of him. At 72 years old, he was knocked unconscious.
“He came out after a while, covered in red. It was tomato sauce, but everyone thought it was blood,” laughs Bronwyn, before revealing the store is doing better than it ever has done after relocating inside a number of black containers more commonly seen on the world’s largest ships.
“Colin’s busier now than he ever was before, and despite the earthquake, he’s still going,” she said.
“The shop has always been part of him – I can’t imagine him ever giving it up.”
But the costs for Colin, and every other home and business owner, can be crippling as insurance prices reach record levels.
“The excesses are so high now as a result of what happened. If anything breaks here now, it will have to cost thousands to replace or repair to even consider claiming on the insurance.”
Amid shelves full of Yorkshire Tea, Sherbet Fountains, HP Sauce and Tunnock’s Caramels, 82-year-old Christchurch resident Marianne is looking for a replacement for her beloved New Zealand Marmite.
There is currently a national shortage of the red-labelled yeast extract – a different flavour to the British version – after the Marmite factory in the city was badly damaged by the events of last year. So sought-after is the foodstuff by locals, it can sell for many dollars a jar online. Instead, I persuade Marianne to try the yellow-labelled variety from home.
“If I don’t like it, I’ll come and find you,” she laughs, before revealing she’s only just plucked up the courage to return to the city centre.
“A lot of older people have been nervous about coming back into the city, but I have found it in me to return and I love it,” she said.
“I think the people who have stayed here and haven’t moved away from the city are handling it better than those who moved away. I think they have almost put a barrier up against a return now, so find it hard to do.”
But there is also a feeling that what happened in Christchurch has largely been forgotten by those overseas. While the death toll was limited, the cost will run into billions of dollars, with an estimated rebuild time of around 20 years. Most other cities around the world would have been obliterated by such an earthquake, but strong building regulations had helped minimise casualties. Yet few people know exactly what happened, largely because just over two weeks after the earthquake hit, Japan was devastated by a tsunami – directing news crews and the world’s attention to the far east.
“There has been 11,000 tremors since the earthquake – that’s one every four hours,” says Ross, a driver and tour guide of the London bus that now takes tourists around the ruined city.
“You don’t feel them all, particularly if you are out on the road or driving, but there are some 4,000 that have been strong enough to be felt.”
On the bus are around 15 people who are all keen to have a look around the city and take in the damage. It follows a growing trend in people travelling to centres of natural disasters, either to pay their respects, volunteer or just to try to comprehend the events of the past year and a half. The tour is popular, running twice a day, and includes a stop at the once iconic cathedral, its famous façade now a gaping hole and mass of rubble.
What will happen to the cathedral is perhaps the most controversial subject to have come out of the whole disaster here. There has been a huge argument between supporters of the church and the authorities who have deemed it unsafe, and more importantly, unsalvageable. While the cathedral still stands for now, the likelihood is it will be demolished, much to the anger of those who have been campaigning to save it.
But the tour isn’t the only indicator that tourists are once again beginning to return. Having scrapped Christchurch from its route map, Magic Bus, one of the three main backpacker buses that tour the islands, has recently put it back on the stop list, citing pressure from those who were using their services.
Magic Bus product manager Daryl Raven said: “The time was right to bring international tourists back to Christchurch. They were curious about what had happened and wanted to learn first-hand about the earthquakes and their impact on the Canterbury region.
“We want to give passengers the chance to say they were present during the rebuilding and rebirth of one of New Zealand’s most iconic cities, and to help the Christchurch economy get back on its feet.”
One of the problems now is a lack of accommodation – most of the beds in the city centre, from backpacker dorms to five-star suites, were located in buildings which have now been condemned. Work is rapidly ongoing to refit, rebuild and repair some of the city’s main hotels, but in the meantime accommodation can be tight.
As the bright red London bus passes the former railway station, the clocks are frozen in time. One is them is the time of the 2010 earthquake, a poignant reminder of how time has stood still for Christchurch.
“We watched as it took just a week and a half to pull down a seven storey building,” says Hester Moore, who runs the Base Woodfired Pizza stall with Andy Thomson in the Re:Start Mall.
“The whole façade was ripped away and people’s belongings were still there. It was like looking into people’s lives as they were a year ago,” she added.
But Hester agrees that as a city, the people of Christchurch are moving on with their lives.
“Generally, people are just happy to be here. You just have to accept the circumstances as they are and as they change,” she said.
“It is such a great opportunity now for business, and what they have done here with the containers is a unique and individual way to resurrect the CBD from the state it was in this time last year.”
While there are pockets of new beginnings springing up around the centre, there is still an eerie feel as you walk around the deserted city streets. The sound of clinking coffee cups and the hustle and bustle of business has been replaced with a permanent din of jackhammers and drills.
Familiar names like Starbucks and STA Travel sit boarded up and covered in dust and grime.
In a newsagents, bars of chocolate lie scattered around on the counter in the places they came to rest after being thrown around by the force of the tremor. The walls and windows of buildings still show the spray-painted messages left by search and rescue teams from around the world in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Billboards in the red zone display posters for shows and concerts in March last year – a reminder how beyond the barriers, it is still February 22, 2011.
Vast areas of the city have already been made safe – empty spaces left behind on the footprints of huge office blocks have now been turned into carparks. All of the city’s multi-storey parking facilities remain closed, deemed unsafe for use. As a newcomer to the city, its easy to think that it just had an open-plan feel to the place, easy to forget that the streets here were once lined with shops, restaurants and places of work.
New initiatives have been started to help move the focus away from the city’s loss, to looking towards a brighter future. One of those is Gap Filler, filling the spaces left behind with anything from crazy golf to live music events. Others, like artist Mike Hewson, have created huge works of art that fill the gaping spaces left in many of the damaged buildings and walls.
But perhaps the most thought provoking is that of 185 chairs, a collection of white chairs arranged in a neat square on the site of the former Oxford Terrace Baptist Church. It’s a reminder of the loved ones the city lost on that awful day,
each chair being different to the next as a symbol of the individual people that lost their lives. On a railing to the east of the city centre, yellow ribbons still flutter in the wind with messages of love and hope for those who perished, and for the city as a whole.
As you follow the barriers that section off the ruined city, flowers and messages from loved ones catch the eye. Many are recent, having been left for birthdays or anniversaries.
By a huge empty space, once the home to the Canterbury Television Building, I find Tomo, a young Japanese man who is saying prayers and attaching a bunch of yellow flowers to the railings. More than 100 people died in the building, over half of the total fatalities in the city, after it collapsed within seconds of the earthquake. As well as being home to the local television station, an English languages school was situated inside.
Tomo tells me how 28 of his fellow countrymen died in the building, either killed by the collapse or who died in a subsequent fire. Visibly moved by being at the site, he struggled to contain his emotions.
“Those Japanese students came all of this way from home to study English, but died in the earthquake,” he tells me, eyes welling up.
“I have come here to learn English in their honour, to do it for them. They are no longer able to learn, but I am, and they inspired me to come here and study.
Looking back through the railings at the levelled-off rubble that remains, he sighs.
“I am doing it for them.”
There is no doubt that Christchurch will rise again from the ruins, but the human tragedy from one of New Zealand’s worst ever natural disasters will take a long time to heal. Now though, all thoughts are focussed on getting this city back on its feet as a fully functioning place to live and work.
New building regulations have been brought in – a seven-storey limit has been imposed on new structures, and strict earthquake proofing standards will have to be met. Early plans for the new city layout will make the picturesque river and parks a focal point, while an entirely new infrastructure, including potential for a light railway system, have now become a possibility.
It will, however, take time. It will be years even before the final damaged building has been made safe. The manpower alone to rebuild the city is phenomenal, aside from the incredible demand for building materials and supplies. Conservative estimates put the rebuild duration at between 15 and 20 years to complete, but that doesn’t bother Ross on the city tour bus.
“Our forefathers planted trees around the city, knowing they would never see them reach maturity, but instead they planted them to bring pleasure to others in the future,” he says.
“We’re rebuilding Christchurch. We are starting again and making it somewhere to be proud of again. But its not for us that live here now – it’s for our children, and our childrens’ children. And I’m happy with that.”