My Visit To Christchurch, NZ, And What Life Is Like In A City Still Struggling To Recover From A Massive Earthquake

In 2011, Christchurch was rocked by a magnitude 6.3 that devastated the city. Three years later, the city is still in recovery, and in many areas, it seems like nothing has changed.
Publish date:
March 13, 2014
travel, earthquakes

My last days in New Zealand were spent in Christchurch, a beautiful and fascinating city in its own right, but also one which provided a horrifying possible glimpse of my own future.

In 2011, Christchurch was rocked by a magnitude 6.3 that devastated the city, coming as it did on top of the 2010 Canterbury earthquake, which had already weakened many structures. Almost 200 people were killed, much of the downtown was destroyed, and the city was thrown into chaos. Three years later, the city is still in recovery, and in many areas, it seems like nothing has changed.

Going downtown, vacant lots are everywhere, some still strewn with rubble from the demolition of buildings. Other buildings are still standing, but show visible earthquake damage; or they look normal, but they’re fenced off, indicating that they’re unusable. Stern signs warn me not to go inside. The streets are a mess, with endless reroutes and roadwork making it even worse, and on my first day here, they were flooded, making the situation even worse.

I saw water lapping at the doorsteps of homes that had clearly just been rebuilt or repaired, overtaking cracked, buckled roadways, eating away at the “works end” signs which are more like bitter jokes, because the works never seem to end. One of my Christchurch friends took me around for a bit of a tour and she ended up having to double up, around, and back on herself multiple times to find the place she wanted to take me for lunch.

“It’s awful,” she said, surveying the city. “They repair roads and then tear them up again, the city can’t seem to decide what it wants to do about half the buildings, the insurance is taking forever. Some of my friends have given up and moved because they can’t take it anymore.”

On the day of the earthquake, she was working in a building with a glass front, and she was surprised when it didn’t simply fall off; she was filled with an irrational terror that the glass would fall away and the earthquake would create a massive vortex. She confessed she wasn’t the only one who thought a vortex would form, as she discovered when she talked to her friends.

Navigating her stroller over roadworks, lumps in the pavement, and random empty lots, she told me how infuriated many Kiwis were at how long recovery in Christchurch was taking, how the beautiful city had been brought to its knees by the quake. And how the city’s sluggish action was making the problem worse.

We walked by the cathedral, once the pride of the city, now a testament to the power of the quake. Part of it had simply fallen away, exposing the rafters inside for the pigeons to nest on, and I gave an involuntary gasp. Yet, in other places, as often paradoxically happens with earthquake damage, the structure was untouched, and one almost expected to see people preparing for services.

The cathedral has been fenced off, with a little viewing platform so you can view the damage.

“I think they should leave it this way,” she said, in response to my question about the debate over the cathedral. “If they can’t restore it, they should make it into a monument, so we’ll never forget.”

Looking around the city today, I can’t imagine that anyone will be forgetting in a hurry, not with the evidence of the quake everywhere around me. Some of the Kiwis compare it to Loma Prieta, which struck San Francisco in 1989 -- the earthquake that pancaked highways and ravaged the Bay Area. They’re horrified when I tell them that highway work and earthquake strengthening are still going on, imagining what it would be like to live in a perennial construction zone for 25 years.

Being in Christchurch is a window into the terror of every Californian, or anyone who lives in a seismically active area. The city is a vision of a future where insurance snarls, government red tape, and endless small aftershocks continually complicate anything resembling recovery.

Many people are still waiting on final determinations about their homes, living in limbo. Even as a flood of construction workers, engineers, and others descends upon the city, there’s nowhere to put them, thanks to the housing crisis caused by the destruction and demolition of so much housing as a result of the earthquake. The colossal flooding that happened to coincide with my visit to the city certainly added to the problem, pushing more people out of their homes.

I don’t want to paint too dark a picture, though. Because while Christchurch is in ruins, its residents are struggling to recover, and their determination and innovation is remarkable. In a way, Christchurch has turned into a popup city, with signs of life where you least expect it.

Vacant lots have random art installations, many of which are interactive, turning what would be urban blight and bleakness into lively public spaces. A popup mall is made entirely out of shipping containers, with some sprightly topiary penguins to add life to the scenery -- I have my first banking experience inside a shipping container and my host buys me an excellent sausage.

Shipping container businesses are all over the city; I eat at a Thai restaurant that runs out of a tiny teardrop trailer and a shipping container just a few blocks away from my hostel, and I see others stationed around the city. Some are used as offices and storage for construction sites, but others are lively, interesting businesses. Food trucks are found here and there, serving things on the go, including pies, my current obsession.

I see a popup bar on a street corner, music thumping and lights swinging on poles. Across the street is a ruined church, stripped down to its bare supports. At the opposite corner sits a large, empty building, slumped with earthquake damage. The eye is drawn, though, to the bar; not to the huge crane looming over the church or to the old real estate office with peeling, ancient listings taped to its windows, a snapshot of the housing market in February 2011.

As a visitor and an outsider, I don’t have to deal with the daily frustrations of living in Christchurch, although I sympathize with the anger and frustration of those I talk to. Everyone has an earthquake story, not just about where they were, but what happened in the aftermath.

“All our favorite places to go were just gone,” my host tells me. “I have no idea where they went, or if they just gave up. I miss the people at our Dairy, you know?”

But to me, Christchurch strikes me very much as a city alive and a city in recovery; slow, frustrating, and angering as that recovery may be. Christchurch, too, is a city of lessons for me, an image not just of what I might someday face, but of how an earthquake-struck city could learn to do many things better for its residents.