Christchurch earthquake: 'My home town has been devastated'

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.