We’re having fun in Christchurch. We’re staying with a wonderful couple, Penny and Peter, and they are lovely hosts. They’ve shown us around the area, given us rides, fed us, are housing us – they’ve been great. (Penny keeps us supplied with fresh scones – you know how Richard and I love our scones!)
And Christchurch is beautiful – it’s known as the Garden City, and it’s true – nearly every house has a beautiful garden, and this is the best time to see all the flowers. Public places have gardens. Stores have outdoor gardens. The weather is wonderful, the sky is a brilliant blue, the sun is shining, we’ve only encountered rain at night. Absolutely gorgeous.
But Christchurch was hit with a series of earthquakes beginning in 2010, with the most devastating quake in Feb. 2011. Even though the strongest quake was in 2010, the 2011 quake was more catastrophic due to the shallow depth, direction of motion, and speed of the quake. (And possibly the shaking motion reverberating between the hills surrounding the city and the Canterbury Plains on which it sits.) The epicenter of this quake was closer to the center of the city, and caused 185 fatalities and extensive damage to the city. The infrastructure was damaged to the point of non-existence. Roads were destroyed. Liquefaction caused sand boils that flooded streets. People in the city had to walk to their homes, miles away, not knowing what they’d find when they got there. Others walked home over hills that came down in the aftershocks, and were killed by falling rocks. The devastation was unbelievable.
And the buildings – Christchurch was known for the beautiful Victorian and Art Deco architecture. Gone, in an instant. The Christchurch Cathedral, most well-known building in the city, lost its spire, and the structure was so severely damaged that the building has been demolished. The Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament lost towers and domes, and only a partial shell is still standing. Knox Presbyterian Church, St Luke's Anglican Church, Durham Street Methodist Church, St Paul's-Trinity-Pacific Presbyterian Church, Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, Holy Trinity Avonside and Holy Trinity, Lyttelton. Sydenham Heritage Church and the Beckenham Baptist Church were heavily damaged, and then demolished days after the earthquake. Hotels, public and civic buildings, the art gallery, City Hall – all damaged beyond repair.
Homes were destroyed, although many of the lovely Victorian bungalows seem to have survived. There are emptied lots all over town, full of gravel and rubble, showing that the structure has been taken down. Some existing houses have structural damage, and families had to move elsewhere. Other people chose to sleep in tents in their yards, due to the constant fears accompanying the continuous aftershocks and repeating quakes, which have continued almost daily for nearly two years. And still other families are awaiting insurance settlements – since the insurance companies have insisted on waiting until the area has been free of tremors and quakes for three months before making payments.
Jobs were lost. Businesses were destroyed, along with the buildings. Over half of the fatalities were in the CTV building, which apparently was designed by an “architect” who really wasn’t qualified, having falsified his credentials by stealing someone else’s record of education and training. (Can you imagine????)
So we are visiting a city that is still demolishing buildings. Still dealing with piles and piles and mounds and mountains of rubble. Still suffering the effects of PTSD which a natural disaster of this magnitude will cause. Still rebuilding, still trying to figure out what to do next, and how to prevent such widespread damage next time. Because the location of the city, having been built on a gravel plain and swamp that basically is in the caldera of an ancient extinct volcano, and in the shadow of the Southern Alps, makes the area susceptible for other quakes, other damage. How does one rebuild a city knowing that areas are never really going to be safe? (The bedrock isn’t solid, it’s more like shattered glass – so during the Feb. 2011 quake, the movement was in all directions, and the crust of the earth literally separated from the mantle – the geologist described it as being in a state of freefall.)
And yet, the majority of people have picked up the pieces and are going forward, keeping their gardens groomed and rebuilding as they can, starting up new businesses or renovating former ones. Empty lots are turned into car parks. The local library, only just re-opened and propped up by bright red braces holding the structure in place, decorated the metal braces for the Christmas holiday. The central business district has become the site of ReStart – a pedestrian shopping mall of businesses housed in creatively used shipping containers. Colors such as ReStart Red and ReStart Violet and ReStart Aqua are featured in the shipping containers, food areas, awnings, and an incredible abstract mural. ArtBreak coordinates musical entertainment, and tourists walk around fenced-off unsafe buildings to shop and eat and enjoy the ReStart City. ReSene works with artists to decorate newly bare building walls, where a detached building was removed. And despite the temporary nature of this area, despite the mountains of rubble and miles of chain link fencing, there are still incredible displays of flowers everywhere – because this is the City of Gardens. And one can draw all kinds of symbolism and write all kinds of metaphors about flowers growing out of the rubble, life coming forth from destruction, flowers on the grave, whatever. But I think it's more matter-of-fact and practical than that – this is the City of Gardens. That means flowers. The Christchurch identity is linked to flowers. Therefore, keep up the flowers and the gardens.
There is a feeling of hope, a feeling of determination. The human spirit somehow chooses to continue on, despite all odds. It’s like the Caribbean after one of our hurricanes – everyone pitches in to help, everyone shares, and everyone works to move on together, at least for a while. For weeks after the February quake, students and farmers and others came to Christchurch to shovel out wet sand, pick up rubble, help people get their homes and businesses and lives back together. Others sent food and water. Neighboring countries sent workers and monetary aid. Help came across the ocean. But the people who live here, grateful as they are for all the outside help, have chosen to continue to make this place their home, and they are the ones responsible for the rebuilding, and for this feeling of hope.
And these very nice people who have taken us in for a few days – who had to clear the wet silt that bubbled up in their garden – who had to rebuild parts of their home – who had to have the kitchen floor foundation drilled so the water and silt that bubbled up could be suctioned out – who still have driveway and outer-wall damage – who lost friends, and those friends’ family members – this couple took in two cats rescued after the earthquake. Not only people lost their homes – pets lost their homes, and maybe their owners. So people such as our hosts opened their homes to abandoned pets, who needed new homes.
I’m often amazed by the resiliency of the human spirit. We can lose everything, and we are willing to pick up and start over. We rarely give up. We might despair temporarily, but then we move on. We continue.
And that is what Christchurch is now all about – rebuilding; continuing; moving on, maybe not bigger or better than before. But moving on stronger.