By Lynley Capon
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- The beautiful “Garden City” of Christchurch no longer is the city it once was. At 4.35 a.m. on September, 4, 2010, a powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake woke the sleeping residents and shook the place to its core.
Some older areas were damaged with rubble tumbling from Victorian facades onto the streets. Miraculously, no one died then and only a few people suffered injuries.
My husband and I visited Christchurch in December 2010 and noticed the many fallen chimneys. Little other damage was immediately evident. The city-center and iconic cathedral stood intact.
We experienced our first shake on December 26, a shudder of 4.9 on the Richter scale. When going into town on December 28, we felt surprised to see central areas closed off due to more damage.
After the initial quake, more than 5,000 smaller aftershocks struck day and night until February 22, 2011. Then a deadly 6.3-magnitude rumble jolted the city at 12:52 p.m. Shallow and centered just nine kilometres from the city center, that quake collapsed two buildings completely. Many facades fell. Internal walls and floors tumbled. The spire and front of the beautiful cathedral collapsed into the city square.
A 26-storey hotel, the Grand Chancellor, the city's tallest building, leaned precariously. Rocks from cliff-faces fell onto houses while sand and water bubbled up into homes and streets in a phenomenon called “liquefaction". Cars drove into holes, houses slid off foundations, power supplies were cut, water-mains burst and sewers cracked. For days, some streets flowed knee-deep in water.
Sadly, this second big quake killed 182 people. A large rock, a familiar landmark called Shag Rock at Sumner Beach, shattered into a mound now jokingly called “Shag Pile". A road between Lyttelton Harbour and Sumner Beach remains closed due to constant rock-falls during 4,000 subsequent aftershocks.
Since the February 2011 quake, the city council has tried to repair what can be fixed while “red-zoning” hopeless areas into wastelands. Unfortunately, ongoing shakes and more damage curtail progress. Last June 13, another 5.5 quake hit, causing more damage, liquefaction, flooding and road disruptions. Buildings earlier deemed salvageable tumbled.
Alas, Christchurch was built on drained swamp land. While its western side has solid areas, the eastern end contains sandy swathes developed in the past 30 years. Courts heard arguments about some of them before unscrupulous property developers built there.
Worse, the city sits above several fault-lines. Scientists didn't know about some before the September 2010 quake. A fault-line involved in the first quake is 40 km west of the city. The February 2011 quake resulted from a different fault-line under hills to the southeast.
After the June quake, aftershocks gradually relented to only a little tremor about every 36 hours -- until last December 23. That day, several big shakes of 5.5 or more rattled the city. A final 6.0 jolt ruined everyone's pre-Christmas celebrations.
The latest serious quakes result from a fault-line under the ocean east of the city. Luckily, there was no tsunami risk because the ocean floor is shallow and lacks necessary geological conditions.
As my sister-in-law grocery-shopped on December 23, she saw shelves of goods crash around her and rows of wine bottles smash to the floor. As she sidestepped the debris, another shopper turned to her and said, “Is it just me, or are we getting rather blasé?”
Now I'm visiting the partly fallen city again. With sorrow, I see huge spaces on old streets where rows of shops have been bulldozed. Tall apartment complexes and hotels have cranes dismantling them before they fall. The inner city features a “pop up” mall – shipping containers in use as shops and cafes.
By now, there have been 9,500 aftershocks measuring three or more on the Richter scale. Many exceeded four or five. Since returning, I've noticed only three jolts, all 4.5 or more. Smaller ones go by without a mention.
What impresses me most is the resilience of people here and their resourcefulness to survive in a quake zone with its ongoing jolts and damage. My sister's house loses a few bricks each time a tremor exceeds about 5.5. The floor now slopes about 10 centimeters, but there's no real alternative to living there.
Another friend remains in a house condemned after the September 2010 quake. She can't use the front door, a kitchen bench separated from a wall and the windows are twisted. She, too, has no viable alternative.
Despite such intense troubles, the city has lost only about 10 per cent of its past population. Schools share premises, one active from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and another from 1-5 p.m. Churches use school halls for worship, and their members try to give food and aid to displaced people. Families share their homes, often with relatives, who simply can't stay in completely ruined buildings.
Words like “liquefaction”, “munted” and “buggered” are common. University students have formed units to dig out the sand from liquefaction that piles up in yards and along streets. Mobile-toilets and water-supply depots line streets. Solving the problems will take years. City-planners constantly must consider changing circumstances.
A wonderful movie, When a City Falls, documents the earthquakes. On the evening of September 3, 2010, film-maker Gerard Smyth had been filming a tranquil scene for another project, but used that footage and subsequent work to tell an emotional story of what Christchurch has experienced and still does. The strength and humor of its people fill this well-done production.
Few communities ever suffer such a chronic case of quake-weariness. Almost everyone in Christchurch must wonder not so much when the earth will stop shaking for long enough to trust their footing, but rather if it ever will.
Quakes and aftershocks by the thousands
take a heavy toll on everyone and everything.