Earthquake city rebuilds but bereaved still wait for answers

Only after months of campaigning have families been given legal representation. Kathy Marks reports from Christchurch
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Maysoon Abbas looks like she loved life.

Click HERE to download graphic: Where Disaster Struck (173.36kB)

She beams out of every one of the family photographs arranged on a cabinet in her living-room in Christchurch. The most recent, snapped on 19 February, shows her in Cathedral Square, in the heart of the city, with her husband of 35 years, Maan Alkaisi.

Three days later, Mrs Abbas went to work and never came back. A doctor, she was among 181 people who died in the earthquake that devastated the core of New Zealand's second-biggest city and damaged tens of thousands of homes. Nearly two-thirds of the lives, including hers, were lost in the five-storey Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which pancaked when the earth shuddered.

Six months on in Christchurch, the focus is on reconstruction. Much of the infrastructure has been restored; thousands of homes have been surveyed, and civic leaders have produced a widely praised plan for a new, lower-rise, greener city. But amid the emphasis on bricks and mortar, the bereaved feel overlooked. They still crave answers about why their loved ones died, particularly in the doomed CTV office block.

A Royal Commission is examining why such buildings failed to withstand the 6.3 magnitude quake, and will start public hearings in October. But it was only this week, after months of pressure, that the government agreed to fund a lawyer to represent the families' interests. Mr Alkaisi, among those who led the fight, is disgusted.

"It seems like they care more about those who might be responsible than about the people who have suffered the most," he said yesterday, in his neat house in a quiet Christchurch suburb.

No one survived the disintegration of the CTV building. Mr Alkaisi, an engineer, said many of the people who worked there, including his 61-year-old wife, had complained about how shaky it was. "It was built in 1986, not 1886," he said. "We knew a lot about earthquakes at that time. For a building to collapse in such a drastic way, there must have been a drastic design failure."

He added: "The way these people died was horrific. Four of them vanished completely; not even a trace of their DNA was found. Maysoon's death was like a bullet to my heart and a bullet to my head. We had known each other since we were 20 years old. She was my best friend, the one I shared everything with – all our plans for the future, all our dreams – and I want to know why she's not here with me now."

Others lost less, but are traumatised nonetheless. On the other side of town, Sue Holmes jumps whenever a truck rattles past on the nearby motorway. Many of her friends are "pumping anti-depressants". She keeps her shoes by the bed, and a backpack ready. "We've timed ourselves, and we can grab the dogs and be dressed and out of here in less than a minute," she said.

Like many Cantabrians, she fears another big tremor, and the 4,000 aftershocks that have rattled the region since 22 February have done little to calm her nerves. She confines herself to short showers, and sometimes sleeps outside, on a table in the back yard. "It's the only place I feel safe," she said. "It's like being at war, except we're at war with the ground and we can't win. I feel like my life has been stolen away from me."

Mrs Holmes lives in one of the worst-affected neighbourhoods, near the River Avon. The earthquake liquified the ground, flooding her house with two feet of foul-smelling silt. Out of 55 families, only six remain in her buckled, potholed street. Her home is among more than 5,000 deemed uninhabitable, because of the condition of the land. Another 10,000, yet to be assessed, could be added to that list.

Tough decisions are being made by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), which was set up by the government to lead the recovery effort. It has divided the city into zones; those living in the red zone will have to abandon their homes and rebuild elsewhere.

Whole streets and communities will be wiped off the Christchurch map. Many residents are unhappy; some, like Mrs Holmes, complain that the government, which has offered to buy their properties, is undervaluing their land. And the insurance pay-out process is tortuously slow.

In the city centre, rebuilding will not start for a year. Roger Sutton, Cera's chief executive, estimates that it will take that long to demolish about 200 unsafe buildings, including numerous heritage-listed sites. In the meantime, with the entire centre out of bounds, Christchurch is a city without a heart. Residents can only gaze at their commercial district from the other side of the Avon, and some of them do so, seated on benches, eating their lunchtime sandwiches. Bunches of dead flowers, and a few ribbons, festoon the metal fence that delineates the city's shattered core. One handwritten note states: "Happy birthday Chris, 15.5.76 - 22.2.11. Love you son. Missing you and thinking of you today and always with lots of love. Mum and Dad." Beyond the barrier, bulldozers and lorries labour. Tourists and curious locals poke their cameras through holes in the fence.

The reconstruction task is so massive that Christchurch's Mayor, Bob Parker, likens it to the rebuilding of bombed-out European cities after the Second World War. Up to NZ$30bn (£15.4bn) will be spent on it over the next three to five years. It could be a decade before the commercial centre is completely rebuilt, two decades before the city council's vision for a new city is fully realised.

Mr Sutton reckons the damage equates to about one-tenth of New Zealand's GDP. "There's nothing, really, to compare this with, because the scale of these events was so very large, and the level of destruction is so enormous," he said.

Authorities are keen to play down reports of an exodus from the city, which has a population of 400,000. The Christchurch Press claimed this month that 26,000 had departed; the government says the figure is closer to 8,000. In the badly hit suburb of Avondale, one-third of children at the school attended by Brian Parker's daughter have left. There used to be 92 families in his street; now only 18 remain. "I count the lights every night," he said.

Although the 22 February quake was the only one to cause loss of life, the people of Canterbury have endured three major seismic events in 12 months. The first, last September, caused widespread damage. The most recent, in June, pushed some residents over the edge. They snapped, says Brian Parker, like a rubber band stretched too far. Scientists believe there is a one in four chance of another big tremor in the next year.

Mayor Parker feels as if the city has been under "seismic attack", and he says: "I don't believe that there's anybody who doesn't carry with them some trauma from these events, to a greater or lesser degree." But he adds: "When half a million people are faced with a common foe over which they have no control, it binds them together in a way that's rarely seen in the modern world. We're very alive as a community. We understand the meaning of life, and the fragility of life."

Born in Iraq, Maan Alkaisi and Maysoon Abbas moved to New Zealand in the mid-1990s. It was a peaceful place, the antithesis of their home country. On the Saturday before the quake, Mrs Abbas had the idea of spending the day in central Christchurch. While they were there, Mr Alkaisi realised they had never had their photo taken in Cathedral Square. One of their three daughters snapped the picture, the last one taken of their mother. The cathedral and square were severely damaged three days later.

Mrs Abbas worked in a clinic in the CTV block. The clinic had moved there five weeks earlier, from a building that was declared unsafe following an aftershock on Boxing Day. That building survived the February quake intact.

"My question is: what assessment was made of the CTV building to determine it was safe?" asked Mr Alkaisi. "I don't have an answer. For me, this building failed in its design, failed in its construction, failed in its inspection, failed in its maintenance. Why were all these people complaining about it and nobody was listening to them? We just want to know the truth. Nothing will bring Maysoon back, but at least she'll know I did everything to find out why."

His wife died, he believes, because "someone was careless or greedy". Six months on, the pain "doesn't get any better at all ... it hurts all the time".

Bob Parker has faith in the resilience of his community. "The big one has come, and it's taken its tragic toll, but we're still here, and we're planning for the future with strength and optimism.

"Now it's nearly spring, and the daffodils are popping up around Christchurch. There's a sense of renewal."