Christchurch Earthquake 2010 – 10

Miraculously the new Art Gallery was apparently unharmed. Its vast glass façade had withstood the onslaught without harm. It had, I learned, been used as a temporary Civil Defence headquarters while damage to the new Civic Building across the road was being assessed, although why this should be I could not work out. Environment Canterbury has a well equipped, purpose built Civil Defence Centre for just this purpose. Why not move everything over there instead of into a building with a monumental glass wall? Oh, yes. I forgot. Politics overrides earthquakes.

A little further along Worcester Boulevard the Arts Centre had clearly suffered damage, although how much was hard to say. The finial on the tower of Old Boys’ High had fallen off, the second time in my memory, and there were some gable-ends and stonework missing, but it did not look too bad. The Galleria shops were open and people were coming and going. As I walked further down, however, I saw that pretty much everything else had been roped off. The towers of the Clocktower and of the Great Hall were braced up with timber, and Rolleston Avenue was completely cordoned off from Worcester Street to Hereford Street.

The museum had a notice saying that it was safe to go in, but it was shut up; I hate to think of the damage to fragile collections. The Antarctic display in the old McDougal Gallery was open for visitors, it seemed, so any injury to the buildings will, thankfully, be minimal. On the street there were still quite a lot of people meandering about and gazing up at the buildings, although most of them seemed to have clipboards and reflective jackets. I left them to it and heading back towards the City Centre.

By Wednesday things were starting to feel even more normal. It was a wonderful warm spring day such as only Christchurch can put on, and the State of Emergency had finally been lifted although what difference that made on the ground is hard to tell. There were still large numbers of police walking and standing around, as well as many soldiers. The Square was humming – only a very gentle hum, of course, nothing too obtrusive or un-Cantabrian – and the craft market had set up camp in the middle once more. Elle was playing her saxophone as usual and Kelvin the blind busker was belting out Irish ballads.

High Street was open once again and I was able to explore in that direction for a change. The refurbishment of Hereford Street from Colombo Street to the River was in full swing once more, with curbs being built and paving being laid at a great rate, although the Colombo-Hereford intersection is still a complete shambles. Along High Street the Westpac building on the corner of Cashel Street appeared to have suffered damage, unlike most of the other modern high-rises who seem to be uniformly unscathed. Workmen were coming out of the building and loading debris into skips, which was a worrying sign, and the bank, the main Canterbury Branch of Westpac, was closed.

Further down Manchester Street the damage was extensive amongst the many old and primarily brick commercial buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The block of shops that had until recently housed Smith’s Bookshop looked to be an almost certain write-off from the lane to Tuam Street. The Excelsior Hotel itself was intact, but there appears to have been damage to the ANZ Chambers on the corner of Lichfield Street, and a crane was demolishing the little old two storey building that had once been home to Michael’s Restaurant. More damage was evident further down towards the Polytechnic, but on the bright side lots of cafés were open, Alice’s Video Rentals in the magnificent Art Deco Post Office building was open for business, and the stretch of old buildings from Tuam Street to the Polytechnic seemed to be largely unharmed.

Despite all the attempts by the media to dramatise the situation, everything seemed remarkably calm. People were positive and while everyone seemed to know of some tale of tragic loss to someone else, most commonly people reported that nothing untoward had happened to them. A couple of plates or an ornament broken, perhaps, but little more. There is much evidence of damage all around, and will be for a long, long time to come, but considering the scale of what happened we have escaped very lightly, and mostly people recognize that.

I think of the recent disaster in Haiti, when a quake of similar intensity struck there some months ago. Port-au-Prince and neighbouring towns were virtually flattened, and there were something like a quarter of a million dead. Even now, six or eight months after the event the towns are still in rubble, sewage is flowing through streets, and they are still digging bodies out. Here in Christchurch one man died of a heart attack, and some other poor bloke got severely banged on the head by a falling chimney. Apart from that all that we suffered were a few cut and bruises. If indeed Christchurch was founded in God’s name, then She is looking after it. We should count our blessings. Even the Cathedral, although shut as a precaution to asses possible damage, is completely intact, not a gable-end nor finial nor turret tip lost.

There is a lot of talk about widespread fear, and without doubt a lot of people are nervous, and a few are quite severely traumatised, but I suspect that this is more of a media beat-up than anything else. Both the media and the political establishment have a vested interest in exaggerating matters, or focussing on a few examples while ignoring the larger picture. Such things sell newspapers, improve ratings for the  6 o’clock news, and heightens the profile of politicians who have god-sent opportunities for melodramatic and pompous sound-bites. It is instructive to note the backgrounds to the reports of on-the-spot television reporters; they use the same sites over and over for dramatic effect. The intersection of Worcester and Manchester Streets, with its demolished restaurant and jewellers shop on one corner, burnt-out massage parlour on the other, and damaged old church on a third, is rapidly becoming the definitive image of the 2010 Christchurch Earthquake.

I would not dismiss the extensive damage, structural and human, that has been caused by this event, nor do I doubt that it will be many, many years before that damage is put right. Conversely I would not underestimate the determination and resilience of Christchurch and its people. The City is crawling with workers busily setting things to rights. There is an intense desire for normality, and a relentless will to achieve it. There have been other events to distract to media; blizzards in Southland causing damage in Invercargill and misery across Southland farms, flooding in the Wairarapa, cyclones in Auckland.

It has been a difficult winter, but spring is in the air. The magnolia tree in the Arts Centre’s market square is resplendent with huge purple and white blooms, while the flowering fruit trees along the Avon are clouds of shimmering petals. There will be a few more chilly nights yet, but warm summer days are just around the corner.

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