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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

On 22 February 2011 at 12.51 pm a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Although now 11 years ago, I vividly remember the events of that day - I was there. Though not huge in global terms, the proximity and shallow depth of the quake’s epicentre gave it devastating destructive power. Much of the city centre was destroyed, most unreinforced masonry buildings were critically damaged, and 185 people lost their lives. Many others, trapped in collapsed buildings, suffered major and permanent injuries.


We had no warning of the impending disaster when a huge shock wave hit the house. I was thrown to the floor, furniture was thrown around, pictures fell off walls, light fitments fell, water began pouring through the ceiling from the fractured storage tank. The structure of the house remained intact; fortunately it was a timber framed building on timber pilings, so its ability to flex saved it. Our neighbour in a masonry built house suffered major damage. We were some miles from the city centre, away from the worst hit area, and being on the side of the Port Hills I could see plumes of dust rising as buildings collapsed. I saw the CTV building on fire, and helicopters dropping tons of water. I got into the roofspace to try and stop the flood of water, bracing myself on the flimsy beams as successive waves of aftershocks hit the house. All essential services vanished. Water mains were fractured, likewise the sewerage drains. The local water storage reservoir fractured and thousands of tons of water vanished. Power was off, telecoms was off, roads were a chaotic mess as the underlying silt and high water table liquefied under the intense shaking, sending sludgy silt through the broken roads. Thousands tried to leave the city but found no fuel - power for the pumps was off, and some underground fuel tanks had fractured. There was no sleep to be had that night as every few minutes, violent aftershocks struck, each one creating a visceral fear such as I have never before experienced. Our neighbour bunked down with us, their  house in a dangerous condition.

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Never underestimate Kiwi resourcefulness. The response from the authorities was fast and efficient. Water bowsers were stationed everywhere within hours. Orion, the power company, had power back on to most houses within 48 hours, despite wrecked power lines and substations that had sunk into the liquefied subsoil. Telecoms were soon up and running again, and thousands of porta-loos were brought across from Australia and parked in  streets that were without sewerage. Rescue workers were in the wrecked streets immediately, pulling people out of the rubble. The Christchurch Press continued working through it all, with parts of their offices falling about them, and their reporters out on the streets. The Pyne-Gould offices, where we had been only a couple of days before, had collapsed like a stack of pancakes, and many lost their lives there. Others were rescued but with appalling injuries. One man, legs crushed by fallen beams, had to undergo a double amputation in situ.


Then the long, long job of clearing the wreckage. The Grand Chancellor hotel, tallest in the city, had taken on a dangerous lean as one of its supporting piers collapsed. Everyone inside was safely evacuated, but it was impossible to demolish the building in the usual way as it was surrounded by other buildings which had survived. So it was painstakingly and very carefully dismantled, a process that took two years. The iconic Anglican cathedral was severely damaged, losing its west elevation entirely including the bell tower. It is still, after 11 years, in the process of reconstruction to its original form. Likewise the Neo-Gothic Arts Centre, a major tourist attraction, is still being restored though much of it is now open again.

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Reconstruction of the city continues to this day. It is becoming a very different city from the one before. Many of the heritage buildings have been lost, deemed irreparable. The many smaller owner-run businesses in the CBD moved out to the periphery, where they remain, benefitting from cheaper rents, but draining the central city of much of its former charm and interest. Vast insurance payouts permitted shiny new steel and glass retail outlets to be built.  Glass fronted, echoing, identical looking cafe’s replace the characterful individuality that went before. But great improvements have also been made over the old city. Public spaces look great, clean and new. And some of the key heritage buildings are being or have been brought back to life. Christchurch has changed almost beyond recognition, and people will argue whether for the better or for the worse, but whichever view one takes, a new norm has been established, and the city without doubt offers world class quality of life for its 400,000 inhabitants. You can find out more from Wikipedia “2011 Christchurch Earthquake”.


My pictures only show a part of the story, as there was no public access to many areas, so I have included some pictures from the Christchurch Press  (credited). I cover the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, some record of the outpouring of grief that was felt around the city, and the start of the rebuild, generally from 2011 up to 2018

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