Thursday, January 31, 2013

Monday 28th January – Inspecting the Damage in Christchurch

Until the Christchurch earthquake two years ago, most cruise ships coming to this area, would call in at the port of Lyttleton, just outside Christchurch. But, since that devastating earthquake, ships now tender into the tiny town of Akaroa, at the other end of the rugged Banks Peninsula.

Akaroa is a gorgeous little place with an interesting history from its times as a French settlement in the early colonial days – but, our mission today, was to go to Christchurch to see how the city is handling the aftermath of that terrible earthquake which damaged so many of its buildings and claimed 182 lives.

Our lovely friends Megan and Malcolm drove over from Christchurch to pick us up and take us to their city to see the damage and the re-building process. They've had a pretty tough time since the earthquake – dealing with the trauma of that fateful day and the 11,000 aftershocks that have hit since (they can now identify the scale of an earthquake within 0.1 on the Richter scale, just by the feel of it).

As we got to the city, the first thing we noticed was the state of the roads – previously flat roads are now damaged and undulating – something which makes for a very bumpy ride, and there are constant roadworks all around the city. They drove us round eerily deserted suburbs in "The Red Zone" where all the houses have been condemned – the damaged houses waiting to be pulled down are being overgrown with weeds and covered in graffiti. It made for a depressing sight.

In Sumner, luxury houses that were 30 feet back from the cliff, now lie abandoned, hanging precariously off the cliff face. The cliffs were now supported by shipping containers. In fact, there are shipping containers everywhere, supporting damaged buildings and cordoning off forbidden areas.

Then we drove to the city centre, which was almost unrecognisable – it was like a war zone, with piles of rubble and twisted metal where buildings had once been. It was disorienting even for Megan to drive her way around the streets, without any of the landmarks that she was used to seeing.

The city's iconic neo-Gothic cathedral is a forlorn sight – it's once-proud steeple now toppled, and the rest of the building in ruins. They still don't know whether to try to re-build it, or knock it down. Later, we saw the building site where a new temporary cathedral is being constructed – in a city where it's difficult to plan for the future, appropriately enough, they're building it out of cardboard (although, somehow it's costing millions – much to our friends' disgust).

Just when things were getting depressing, we went to the Re:START Mall that's recently been built in the city, as an attempt to put some life back into Christchurch. The mall is mainly made up of shipping containers, but they're laid out and painted in such a quirky and imaginative way, that it felt like an ordinary lively city centre. It really gave us hope that this city can bounce back and re-build itself better than it was before.

We had lunch in another temporary structure – a giant rugby ball that had been in Auckland during the 2011 Rugby World Cup (which Malcolm continually reminded me, the Kiwis had won – I pointed out that, as England had beaten New Zealand in their most recent encounter, that made us the de facto world champions).

Then we went to see the damage at their house. On first glance it doesn't seem too bad, but on closer inspection, you see all the cracks in the walls and the ceiling, the bulges in the floor, the doors that don't shut any more, and the places where the liquefaction came bubbling up from the ground. The insurance company is still deciding if the house should be repaired or knocked down to start all over again. It's likely to be 3 years after the earthquake before they have a decent house again, yet somehow they're staying positive and cheerful – I'm told that alcohol sales in the city have gone through the roof, as the bottle has become an essential part of the Christchurch coping mechanism.

All too soon, it was time to think about the 90 minute drive back to Akaroa, but we'd got a strong flavour of what this city and its people have been through, and the determination to get back on its feet and re-build. They've been through the worst of times, but things can only get better.