Christchurch earthquake: 'My home town has been devastated'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Born in Christchurch, Tim Hume returned to find people's spirits as devastated as their city. Is it even possible to rebuild their lives on such shaky ground?

My father greets me at Christchurch airport with wet eyes. He looks smaller than I've ever seen him, and is talking too loudly, and too much. He gabbers a sort of apology for the state of the dilapidated terminal, straining under the deluge of emergency flights. The new airport was supposed to have been finished by now, he says, but was delayed by the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck on 4 September last year.

That project, like so much else in our newly jinxed home town, had since gotten back on track, he tells me. Around the city, work had recently begun on permanent repairs to badly damaged houses, roads and utilities. Those who had fled Christchurch following the quake – spooked by the regular aftershocks, fearing their own houses – were beginning to drift back. A week earlier, stores in the central business district had marked a symbolic return to business as usual with a belated "Boxing Day sale", to compensate for the one interrupted by a large aftershock on 26 December. "Things were just starting to get better," he says.

Now the city centre lies in ruins, with 102 confirmed dead, and hopes fading for 228 missing in the rubble. Thousands of others are displaced, sheltering in welfare centres or private homes, enduring power and water cuts. Eight extras are bunking down with my parents, five adults shocked and intermittently on the brink of tears, three young girls more or less sheltered from the extent of the tragedy. In the face of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake on Tuesday that will likely prove New Zealand's worst-ever disaster, and that nobody saw coming, the government has declared its first national state of emergency. The people of Christchurch, already pushed to the brink by the ordeal of September, are grasping for new reserves of resilience.

As natural disasters go, this was a sucker punch. Having incurred NZ$4bn (£1.8bn) worth of damage last year, Christchurch had already taken its share of punishment, and barely pulled itself up off the mat. David McPhail, an actor and writer who was born and has spent most of his life in the city, tells me he believes that despite his "great confidence" in their resourcefulness, many of his fellow citizens have little left in the tank. "You can't just go, 'Another earthquake, the house is demolished, let's get started again.' You would start to think, 'What's the point?'."

Throughout the regular aftershocks since September, nobody suspected they would outdo the initial quake which, despite being marginally stronger than the Haiti quake which killed hundreds of thousands last year, resulted in no loss of life. "You thought, 'We've had our turn, someone else can have a go'."

Tuesday's quake, which occurred at about 1pm, was of a smaller magnitude, but was shallower and struck with far greater force. "The first big quake was up and down, up and down," says office worker Rob Young. "This was far more violent, like being shaken back and forth. It was two or three times greater ground acceleration than in September." After that first quake, which occurred at 4:35am, people spoke of the particular horror of being jolted around in the dark by unseen forces. Now that they had experienced the same in the middle of a bright summer lunch hour, most were of the opinion you were better off in the dark. Thomas Rummel watched the city's landmarks topple around him in clouds of dust as he was stranded for four hours at the top of a jolting office tower. The timing of the quake, when families were separated, and difficulties in establishing contact with loved ones due to jammed phone networks only compounded the trauma of the day.

For New Zealanders – at least those born after the 1931 Napier earthquake, which killed 256 – the situation is unprecedented. The death toll looks set to rise into the hundreds, and many survivors have lost limbs. Questions are being asked of the city's economic viability. The disaster has taken a heavy toll on the city's dearest institutions and symbols. Local broadcasters are among the dead, along with staff from the city's newspaper, and a board member of championship-winning Canterbury rugby team. Some of the country's best-preserved heritage buildings have been toppled, including the 130-year-old Christ Church Cathedral, where police say the bodies of between 16 and 22 people are trapped. There's no chance they survived.

"I will still love Christchurch, but my view of the city has changed. The things that have been stable and permanent are now no longer there, and I feel their loss quite deeply," says McPhail. "If people... woke up one morning and Big Ben was lying on the ground, they would feel something a little odd about London. That's what I feel."

As some locals declare their intention to permanently abandon the city and its treacherous ground, Prime Minister John Key has vowed the city will be rebuilt, although not "in the form it's in at the moment". McPhail says he intends to stay put, but he doesn't believe the city will ever fully recover. Looking around, you'd have to agree with him.



For those who have never visited the "Garden City", Christchurch is New Zealand's second-biggest settlement, a pretty, low-lying sprawl on the east coast of the South Island, with a population of 380,000. A popular destination for foreign tourists, it's valued as a gateway to the spectacular scenery of the hinterland, and for its genteel, sedate character, often said to be more English than England itself. Local heroes are Canterbury Crusaders and All Blacks rugby superstars Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, both originally from further south, but who embody the quiet, humble masculinity traditionally venerated by "Mainlanders".

This is sometimes skewered into an uncharitable stereotype of a provincial, monocultural city, where the class system of the city's English founders is more entrenched than anywhere else. A fairer observation would be that as a quiet, pleasant bastion of middle New Zealand, it's the last place you'd expect to find much drama, least of all the collapse of a city.

And particularly not one caused by an earthquake. Like the Japanese, New Zealanders grow up acutely aware they live in a tectonic hot zone; we refer affectionately to our country as the Shaky Isles. The government drills a mantra of earthquake preparedness into householders. But talk of the inevitable "Big One" has always centred on the likelihood of a devastating quake striking the capital, or other areas known to lie on active faults. Christchurch was never considered a likely target. "What really frightened people is that it happened here at all," says McPhail. "We live in an unpredictable country."

What does a state of emergency look like in a place like Christchurch? In Avonhead, in the suburban northwest, there's a sense of disconnection from the disaster. Residents sheepishly wheel their recycling bins to the curb at night. "I don't know if the collectors will come or not," says one. (Surprisingly, they do.) Power cuts to half of Christchurch mean the arterial avenues leading into the city centre are erratically lit. Here and there are puddles of liquefaction, where the shifting ground has squeezed up a layer of stinking grey ooze. Some suburbs are flooded with the stuff. Sandwich boards advertise emergency meals for the needy. Cars are abandoned on median strips. There are sections of road, rucked up like a mis-stitch. On Bealey Avenue, you encounter a line of soldiers and police, cordoning off the central city. Behind them is a caved-in church, with a spraypainted message on the walls advising that sniffer dogs have been through. Beyond that lie the horrors of the city centre.

At the smouldering wreck of the Canterbury Television building, authorities believe up to 120 people may have perished, including large numbers of Japanese, Korean and Chinese students from a language school inside. Buildings like the four-storey Pyne Gould simply pancaked, trapping 14 office workers. For the first night, friends and family clawed fruitlessly at the rubble of these buildings, although one woman was dragged out alive by rescuers a full 26 hours after the quake. But now operations at these major sites have switched from "rescue" to "recovery" mode, with emergency workers focusing on buildings where they consider there to be a greater chance of survival. Families of the missing have criticised police – Cindy Gibb, wife of a missing television reporter, wrote online: "I know the chances are really slim, but they are giving up too soon." Casting a further pall over the operations is the nearby Hotel Grand Chancellor, at 70m the city's tallest building, which has been listing perilously, and is at risk of toppling with every aftershock.

The aftershocks. Technically, Tuesday's quake was just another one, the killer among the thousands that have pulsed through the earth of Christchurch for the past five months, making amateur seismologists of the population. For the most part, people have taken them in their stride. Despite the devastating damage caused by the initial quake, the mood in its aftermath had an ambiguous sort of buoyancy. The nil death toll in its wake was lauded as a near-miracle. Children posed for photos inside the metre-wide cracks in the roads. A survivor spoke of emerging unscathed from a multi-storey fall from his bed, after the sides sheared off his home, leaving it a giant doll's house. The prevailing sentiment was captured in graffiti I spotted yesterday in Hagley Park, the site of an earthquake benefit concert in September: "It might be a bit broke here but it ain't no Haiti." National attention inevitably drifted elsewhere, particularly when, in November, on the other side of the Southern Alps, the Pike River coalmine exploded claiming 29 lives.

This week all eyes returned to Christchurch. Hagley Park became an impromptu welfare centre, sheltering hundreds of stunned refugees from the ruined city centre. The first news I heard of the quake was on the radio, where a resident, with the jokey nonchalance of someone who had lived through too many aftershocks, underplayed the latest jolt in a typically southern way. But as the extent of the destruction became apparent, the mood changed noticeably. At cordons, on the streets, on the airwaves, people were tetchy, frazzled, deeply traumatised. This was a kick in the guts too much. On the radio, a woman berated a seismologist for not having predicted the killer aftershock. He pointed out that his colleagues had been warning of another big jolt, but you couldn't predict whether it would be fatal or not. I thought it was a pointless argument. You could choose to leave town, relocate somewhere else, but the reality was you're powerless to know when the earth might move and bring the roof down around you. That was the realisation dawning in the background to the agonising national drama of the recovery effort, a seismic shift in the Shaky Isles.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker