Christchurch Earthquake 09.

It is now two weeks since the Big One hit us, and the true extent of the damage is only just beginning to become apparent. It was easy at first to look around the Square, for example, and, seeing everything still standing and seemingly in order, believe that the damage had been relatively slight. It is not that simple, as I found as I walked through the City over the course of the week.

Monday was bleak and overcast but I nevertheless sallied forth in my regalia to see what, in any, tourists and visitors might be wandering about the town. The barriers were up around the Barbadoes Street frontage of Piko’s Wholefoods, and the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church was unchanged. St Luke’s Church on the corner of Manchester and Kilmore Streets had lost some stonework, particularly finials and gable ends, and there was exclusion tape around much of it, but it was open for business all the same. The Repertory Theatre was looking very sad, but as workmen were carefully boarding up the gaps instead of pulling down the brickwork it would appear that restoration is at least being contemplated.

I suspect that this is a hope that few of the damaged old buildings can look to, particularly the ones still in commercial use. High-profile sites such as the Arts Centre, or Our City – Otautahi will have great care and a lot of money lavished on the because of their visibility and public ownership, but other, lesser known but equally important buildings such as the old NZ Express building or the ANZ Chambers a little further down Manchester Street may not fare as well. As they are in private hands their preservation becomes a much more complex question.

Old buildings are notoriously expensive to maintain. Repairs will be difficult and costly, doubly so because any such repairs will now have to conform to modern, quake-resistant building standards, which will render many of them financially non-viable. Owners will not be allowed to rebuild and replace  according to the original specifications. Building owners, while perhaps publicly deploring the loss of heritage, will be privately rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of insurance pay-outs and the prospect of being able to demolish an elderly white elephant, all the while planning new developments on freshly available bare land. They will no longer have to accommodate to heritage orders, public submissions, environmental hearings and other such impediments to profitability.

I had to renew the registration of the car, a little job to be done at the Post Office, but when I arrived at the Victoria Square branch I found it to be closed, as was the one by the bus terminus. They were still closed on the Wednesday. So much for the resilience of the Postal Service who are supposed to provide so many vital services to the community. At least those of us who rely on Westpac know that we can depend on banking services to be available in good order. Those who depend on KiwiBank may not be able to say the same.

The main body of the Cathedral was closed to the public. Little bits of falling debris  have made the nave and transept a little suspect, so it had been closed pending closer examination. Core services were still being offered in the new annex, which was built to modern specifications, so people can at least take communion and receive pastoral assistance. The Post Office could learn something from the Anglican Church, it would seem. Outside in the Square there were considerable numbers of people walking back and forth, coming from wherever it is people come from, and going to wherever it is they go. The atmosphere was not exactly humming, and mostly people seemed a little subdued, but everyone was talkative, wanting to tell their little story – everyone has one – and there were plenty of tourists mooching around. I did a brisk trade in photo opportunities.

There was a lot of foot traffic across the Worcester Street Bridge, which is one of my primary tourist catchment areas. There I met Wesley who, after bending my ear with his complaints, told me that the large crack in the old Clarendon Building that I had noted with some dismay last week, is quite in order. It would seem that when they built the new Clarendon Tower, the engineers made some structural alterations to the old hotel building in the course of earthquake strengthening. One of the measures was to cut the stone façade vertically from top to bottom in that place then fill the gap with mastic. In that way should an earthquake jolt things about, it would simply come part at that seam instead of crumbling into a mass of masonry. It did exactly what it was designed to do and now all the engineers will have to do is tighten up a few bolts, replace the mastic, and give it a coat of paint. No-body will ever know the difference. Clever blokes, engineers.

Wesley’s complaints were both more serious and indicative of the consequences of an over-zealous bureaucracy. His punt landing had been open last week and struggling back to life. The damaged Our City building had been roped off with exclusion tape, but the punting was still up and running. By Monday, however, someone had run the exclusion tape right around the steps from the bridge and around the punt landing so Wesley cannot do any business. Like so many enterprises of similar size, the punting operation has been running reasonably happily, but profitability depends on continuity of trade, and the business will not be able to run for long without income. Who extended the exclusion tape? Why was it alright where it was last week but not now? How long would it be in place? Could it be moved back to its original position so that he could start trading again? The poor chap was being run ragged trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get answers to these questions from Council staff who are also run ragged trying to field half a dozen queries all at the same time. There does seem to have been a bit of a breakdown in co-ordination, which is understandable given the circumstances.

Reflecting on the joys and miseries of running a business, and saying a prayer of thanks that I no longer had such pressures, I walked on down Worcester Boulevard.

To be continued:

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