Totaled. The word immediately makes me think of a car, it’s gone, it’s totaled. I can use the word with a house as well, but from my experience that’s about as far as damage reaches. Seeing a city that’s been totaled is a whole different thing, it’s hard to imagine. I’ve seen photos of post tsunami Japan and post Hurricane Katrina Mississippi, but I’d never seen something like it with my own eyes until I went to Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s a major city that’s been totaled.
What took generations to build began crumbling almost two years ago. It started as an earthquake, something normal enough for the Pacific Rim, but instead of being a singular catastrophe, it started with a 7.1 magnitude quake in September 2010, followed by thousands of aftershocks that reached a crescendo in the February 22, 2011 quake. This last major aftershock killed 185 people. What people had trusted most prior, terra firma, became deadly, opening up through liquefaction, splashing a river over its banks, and bringing buildings crashing down. The pain of fallen buildings and lost love ones will subside with time, but what’s not clear is if the city will ever be what it once was.
The city cannot begin to recover and rebuild until it cleans up. A year after the last major quake, hundreds, if not thousands of buildings marked for demolition have yet to be removed. I wish I could say that this was due to noble efforts to recycle, restore and save buildings, but from what people told me it’s due to bureaucratic red tape, issues with insurers and lack of resources. The city needs action now more than ever, yet action seems at a standstill. It just doesn’t take that long to bulk demolish entire blocks, especially blocks that have been inspected, disconnected and prepared for demolition. The city cannot begin to move on until this job is done, yet it isn’t happening quick enough.
What was once a vibrant downtown has become the “red zone”, marked for demolition and reconstruction. There seems to be little in the way of demolition and even less in rebuilding. While they may be planning a “city of the future” I was shocked to read that they don’t intend to complete demolition until 2014 and are projecting reconstruction lasting beyond 2020. I can’t imagine how deflating it must be for the people of Christchurch to realize that this may be too long to wait for themselves, that they may be forced to move on before the city even begins reconstruction
Highlighting the affect this had on people are the blocks of empty houses in the neighborhoods near the river. During the earthquake the river was pushed up, flooding nearby homes, destining them all for demolition. Fittingly these houses sit prepped for destruction but still stand, empty shells of the lives that once loved, laughed and cried inside. A stray children’s toy still sits in an empty living room. Window treatments were left in some homes, while others took literally everything, leaving completely empty, see-through houses. With all these families displaced it isn’t clear where they could have all gone. I can’t imagine many returning to their former addresses, even if new houses are built.
The residents though are pulling through it. Many areas of the city were largely unaffected, leaving a ready group of volunteers. Together they have come up with unique ideas such as the Gap Fillers that take now empty lots and create an art installation. It wasn’t the art that impressed me, but the spirit to not let the earthquakes leave visible scars through neighborhoods. Instead of lamenting a torn down building the space is living again until something more permanent takes its place.
Boutique stores that probably once did brisk business in the downtown area have banded together and built a new shopping district. Constructed from shipping containers that are colorfully painted, they created a vibrant, fun, beautiful respite from the sadness just on the other side of the fence, the red zone. I sincerely hope the city can find the means to expand and maintain this development, it is a unique feature born from necessity that demonstrates the will of people to move on. It would be wonderful if this became a permanent part of the new city, a seed for the city to rise again around it.
It isn’t clear if Christchurch will ever rise again. I don’t know the economics of the city or if it was already declining prior to the devastation. What is clear is that there are still hundreds of thousands of people that live and depend on the city. It is the community and governments duty to move faster, it will produce jobs immediately, but more importantly raise spirits as residents see progress towards a future versus seeing the ghosts of the past still standing.
A pedestrian bridge that was twisted by the force of the quake.
IF YOU GO:
- It is still a beautiful city. Tourists should not cross it off their list.
- Lodging is in short supply. Much of the accommodations were in the hard hit areas and are now closed. We called at least a dozen places to find only one room available, a YMCA room for $130/night. Luckily we found a Couchsurfing host.