I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand from 1963 to somewhere around 1975. We’d arrived from England as immigrants, and I suspect my parents chose Christchurch as it was the most ‘English’ city — they weren’t big on diversity.
I was in the kitchen one day in 1968 when everything started shaking, thanks to the Inangahua earthquake on the West Coast. I think that was the first of many earthquakes I’ve felt, since New Zealand lies on the Ring of Fire.
At that time I attended Christchurch Girls’ High School, on its site beside Cranmer Square in the central city. The school itself moved in the years after I’d left in around 1971, but the photo above is a quick snapshot I grabbed with my iPhone back in March 2009.
I left Christchurch in 1976 and my visits in the years since have become less frequent.
Back in September 2010 and again in February 2011 Christchurch suffered massive earthquakes: shallow, close and huge. The second was particularly devastating, with 181 people killed and many more injured and seriously disrupted. Swathes of the city have crumbled and fallen, with the centre hit particularly hard.
On the weekend of 09 September 2011 I visited for a few days to see friends and family. And I wanted to see my hometown for myself too. It was a year since the first major shake and 6 months since the second.
At first as I drove down Memorial Ave and Fendalton Road from the airport things looked fairy normal. I noticed a few walls that were propped up, a church taped off. Since I was driving I wasn’t able to look closely at my surroundings and didn’t stop to take photos.
Then I turned on to Harper Avenue and realised I needed to pay a lot more attention to my driving. The road looked pretty normal, but in fact it was buckled and bent, lumpy and bumpy beneath the wheels.
My destination was St Albans, only 5 minutes more driving so I watched the road. And anyway, there wasn’t much to see in Hagley Park.
The Knox Presbyterian Church on Bealey Ave took my breath away though: it was only a shell, with uprights and a roof. Stupidly, I didn’t take a photo.
Over the next day or so I didn’t actually go in to the central city, and I didn’t go to the Eastern suburbs at all. In the other areas though it seemed to me that the earthquakes weren’t particularly evident at first glance.
But the damage was evident on second glance. Standing outside my motel I was idly gazing at the buildings across the road. Then I realised one house had lost part of its roof. The shed behind another had collapsed.
As with the buckled road, you needed to look twice to see some of the damage.
And I could feel the dust working its way inside my head. You can’t see the dust — I imagine you can if it’s windy — but it’s everywhere. Liquefaction has dried, and hangs as a fine suspension covering car windscreens, windows, and every exposed surface.
On the Friday I drove out to Sumner. At Redcliffs vast chunks of hillside have fallen down behind the school (now closed). Huge shipping containers are stacked 2 high beside the road. I guess that’s to stop rocks from falling on cars. I just hoped there wasn’t an aftershock while I was driving beside them as they looked as though they’d definitely fall on me.
The centre of Christchurch is still cordoned off — the buildings there are too damaged, too dangerous to allow the public in. Trucks rumble in and out carrying away rubble and stirring up dust. Huge machinery is taking buildings down. Soldiers guard the entry points.
Friends and I ‘walked the cordon’ on the Saturday. Some buildings looked OK. Others were clearly damaged, or were simply piles of rubble. The deepest impression though was what wasn’t there. So many empty lots where buildings once stood — now simply rubble on a pile somewhere else.
I took many photos, just a few are on the next page.
Perhaps because I spent 5 years of my life there, I found the Christchurch Girls’ High School site the hardest to look at. I say ‘site’ deliberately: the old school buildings are gone. They’ve been knocked down and carted away. All gone, but a few chips of brick, one of which is now in a drawer in my bedroom, next to my old school scarf. There are just a few associated buildings left behind: an ugly concrete block building I remember as being the lunchroom, a caretaker’s house.
The aftershocks continue, small and large. I missed one the next day when I was visiting friends further south.
Now I’ve returned to Wellington, city on a fault line. For years we’ve been expecting ‘The Big One’. Earthquakes are normal here. There have been many that others have felt but I haven’t. There have been some that shook the building enough for me to go stand in a doorway.
As yet, we haven’t had one that turned us upside down as the Christchurch earthquakes did. And having seen what that power does, I really hope we don’t get that Big One in my lifetime.
It’s hard to find ‘good’ things in such devastation and disruption. I guess I have that luxury because I’m not in the middle of it, here in Wellington. But it seems to me there are 2 things to ponder:
- This devastation was not the product of human malice or political differences, or war. The city wasn’t bombed. No one set out to cause harm. It was Nature, pure and simple. And I think that of all the natural phenomena earthquakes are something that we humans have no causative influence over.
- It gives Christchurch a fresh start. They can build and rebuild differently, conscious of current technology and knowledge about the world.
There are photos on the next page.