One year on from the February 22nd, 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, Deborah reflects on the impact of the quakes and the ongoing aftershocks, in an excerpt from her journal.
Three days from now we will remember the February 22nd earthquake that killed 185 people and destroyed a city. But already the anniversary is on my mind, provoked today by a column in the Sunday paper by a journalist who writes regular pieces of a controversial and inflammatory nature. Invited by the editor to reflect on the anniversary she chose to examine her apathy towards Christchurch, thinking she might be speaking for many but also aware she might ‘not win myself any friends here.’ She blundered on regardless explaining that she hadn’t visited Christchurch since the quakes and that it was ‘not a city I have ever had strong feelings about one way or another.’ She remembered falling in the Avon River when she was five and ‘lusting after the period homes bordering Hagley Park when she was 35.’
Imagining she was correctly gauging the public mood she wrote,
I suspect my apathy in regards to Christchurch is more widespread than most admit. One year on, newspapers now hesitate to put it on the front page. Unless you are a Cantabrian, and even then maybe you have tired of the subject, living day in, day out, with the aftermath of a natural disaster. Christchurch simply doesn’t sell. And while undoubtedly Christchurch is the loser here, I guess I figure, and perhaps wrongly, that this is still the land of milk and honey. Trim milk anyway.
Regarding the 185 deaths, she reasoned, ‘Perhaps I suffer from the opposite of that particular western affliction, in which one dead local equals 437 dead foreigners.’
I read her words ‘…one dead local equals 437 dead foreigners’ and feel dismayed. Every life is precious. I read ‘Christchurch simply doesn’t sell,’ and think Cantabrians didn’t ask for an earthquake and neither did they ask to be the subject of constant media scrutiny. This was a random act of nature, one that couldn’t be foreseen. Even now its future cannot be predicted. The only certainty, according to the seismologists, is that there will be more aftershocks and quakes and the activity could go on for decades. Why then would you attack the city and its people, knowing this?
I am so upset by the column; I’m sending a letter to the editor for the first time in my life.
I have had a candle burning all day, on the dining table next to a vase of purple old-fashioned geraniums. It burns steadily to remember those who died one year ago today and those who continue to endure the devastation.
One year on, this is how life is now for the people I know in Christchurch.
The shakes are endless. They roar underground, rattle the windows, knock things flying, slosh the water in the glasses on the table, tip people over. Many individuals in this unsteady city have difficulty sleeping and some need pills to get them through the night so they can work the next day and face the ongoing round of inconveniences and obstacles. Some suffer panic attacks. Even the most steadfast and stoical are struggling.
Many of my friends and relatives are living as best they can in smashed up, crooked houses, a number of the buildings are designated for demolition. Some have considered moving to another city, others have already left, while others have lost their jobs. Everyone is tired. Everyone is struggling. Everyone has had enough.
Visitors to the city centre will inevitably arrive at the brave pop-up mall, with its brightly coloured shipping container shops. The mood in this street is sombre despite the hanging baskets of geranium and impatiens, the vibrant plots of lavender and dwarf sunflowers, the banners on street poles and the great efforts of the buskers playing their violins and guitars.
At the end of the mall you reach the mesh fences that surround what is left of a broken, dusty, city centre strewn with fallen masonry. Looking down Colombo Street towards the Cathedral is a disorientating experience. The spire isn’t there anymore. The spire that spelt Christchurch fell down on February 22nd.
By the Avon, in the red zone, I find rampant, weedy growth replacing what was once a series of grassy, clipped banks, between bridges. Amongst the general dereliction, the ‘Our City’ building (formerly the Chamber of Commerce (1887)), a brick and terracotta interpretation of the Queen Anne style by Samuel Hearst Seagar is propped up and seriously damaged. One of the beautiful terracotta statues representing ‘Industry’ and designed by British sculptor George Frampton has lost her head.
Looking up Worcester Street from this position there is a blank where the cathedral should be. But to my surprise a tall crane had been positioned there and hovering up high on its red arm, I spy a huge gilt angel that used to hang in the Cathedral for Christmas. The sight is both uplifting and heartbreaking.
And what of the buildings I wrote about all those years ago? People say CERA (Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority) have destroyed more heritage buildings than the earthquakes themselves. I wonder who is leading this ominous path of ruination. Is anyone on the team suggesting caution. If only someone in a position of power would say, ‘Wait, pause, consult, is it possible this building might be strengthened and retained?’
Tell me why none of the people in positions of power - Bob Parker, Roger Sutton, Gerry Brownlee, John Key - are championing this critical issue? I heard, Gerry Brownlee, on the news, with reference to the heritage buildings, saying he wants to ‘get the old dungers down.’ Is anyone listening to the architects, to Ian Athfield who has been appointed to oversee the aesthetics of the re-building of the central city? Do they speak to Miles Warren about his Christchurch Town Hall, the finest example of avant-garde modernist public architecture in the country, in the southern hemisphere, in fact everywhere in the world, and gather his ideas on what can be done? There is talk it will be demolished. And what about its fountains, those large, multi-faceted balls that used to spray into the Avon River beneath the cantilevered building and the carved wooden screens in the corridors, and the Pat Hanly mural of dancing figures in light and the scarlet leather banquettes that sat on the marble floors in the foyer? Have they been rescued? Are they safe?
Please Christchurch hold onto your ruins, your facades and archways and decorative fragments, so that the history they encapsulate are not erased forever. When you stop and study a heritage building you become aware of the almighty effort of the dedicated craftspeople who created these structures one hundred and more years ago, of each weighty piece of stone lifted, by human hand, and secured in place, of cach piece of ornamentation carved into classical shapes by someone talented while in the background women fed and clothed and sustained those labourers. We must not lose these tangible signs of the past, let alone the beauty of the craftsmanship?
There are inspirational examples worldwide that demonstrate a range of possibilities. In Berlin the tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm church, referred to as ‘the broken tooth,’ alluding to the impact of the World War 11 bombing raids, was strengthened and retained alongside the new church. The Brandenburg Gate that divided the East from the West still stands beside a peace memorial chapel, symbols of the past incorporated into the fabric of the new, lest we forget. Closer to home, there is the example of the rebuilding of Darwin, after Cyclone Tracy. There they retained a 19th century porch and incorporated it into the new Cathedral with its soaring, tornado proofed roof and they kept the arched doorways of the old town hall that now lead to a shallow brick amphitheatre used for outdoor speeches, rallies and theatre performances.
My secondary school on the corner of Cranmer Square has been cleared away, the softened red brick walls, the Venetian arched windows, the hexagonal room on the corner that was the principal's office, the upstairs library with its high wooden vaulted ceiling all gone, gone, gone. My school has evaporated. I can’t believe it. On the opposite corner the great grey stone Normal School (1876) designed by Samuel Farr, a building I researched and wrote about for a City Council booklet in 1980, while it was still a ruin, is now a ruin again. The hexagonal tower on the corner of the Square is reduced to a broken wall and one forlorn window with its tracery intact, amongst a pile of rubble. It hurts to see dear, beautiful buildings in pieces, destroyed by this confounding earthquake.
Round the corner at the old Teacher's College a big stone ornament, a finial that once decorated the roofline is hanging on by a thread, leaning at a precarious angle over the footpath. On every visit I notice it dangling there and wonder why it hasn’t been secured.
And what of Shands Emporium (1860) the oldest wooden shop in the city and McLean’s wooden mansion with its 53 rooms and lead Mansard towers which have been a feature of the inner-city skyline for all my life. Both buildings survived the quakes but the side wall of Shand’s Emporium has been severely damaged by the demolition of adjacent buildings and the structure of McLean’s, I understand, is severely compromised Their fate remains unknown.
In an item on TV3 this morning a group of children were asked about their future wishes for their city. There was the child who said, ‘I want there to be strong buildings.’ There was the boy who said, ‘I want there to be buildings made of glass.’ And there was the last child who said, ‘I want the cathedral builded (sic) again.’
To me the churches and the cathedrals are part of the fabric of the city, their soaring forms serve to soothe the psyche of a traumatised people. The Basilica, the finest example of ecclesiastical architecture in the southern hemisphere, is being taken apart, block by block, each huge section of limestone stored away for now while its fate remains uncertain. As for the Christchurch Cathedral and the Anglican churches, the extraordinary grim-faced, female Anglican bishop is furiously deconsecrating churches so they can be demolished. She insists ‘the church is the people, not the buildings.’ The eloquent dean of Christchurch Cathedral, Peter Beck has resigned in despair and is standing for election to the Christchurch City Council, where perhaps he might have a voice. It seems the fate of theses churches have become mired in personal politics and disputes, weighed down by the challenge of making iconic buildings safe and of course by the sheer stupefying costs of repair.
In the meantime while we wait and wonder, the bulldozers, pummel and bash, claw and pick, moving stealthily forwards like prehistoric creatures with vicious beaks, pulling apart the precious buildings that once earned the city international recognition as having one of the finest collections of neo-Gothic and Edwardian architecture outside of Europe. Daily the trucks arrive to take away the precious remains and then the road builders come in and cover the sites with asphalt for parking. But who will want to park there? What is left to see?
The thing I find most astounding is the arrival of a new kind of fatalism shared among my friends and family. In July last year over a conversation with two cousins I first witnessed this extraordinary new attitude. One cousin is a nurse at the earthquake shattered Christchurch hospital. The other cousin escaped burial under a collapsed brick wall, only because, seconds before the first shake on February 22nd she had stood to empty her orange peel into a rubbish bin on the footpath. The quake threw her away from the avalanche of bricks and towards the street.
Together they were discussing how they avoid the double-storied buildings with overhanging verandahs and stone masonry facades, when the nurse said,
‘Ah well, I’ve decided if my time is up, it’s up.’
‘Do you really feel like that?’ I asked, aghast.
This level of stoical pragmatism might be expected amongst survivors of civil wars, where the constant bombardment and bloodshed has gone on for years and years. Not in New Zealand the land of ‘trim milk’ and ‘honey.’ Before September 2010 New Zealanders hadn’t lived in such close proximity to danger. People could wake each morning confident that the ground they walked on was rock solid and stable. Now as each Cantabrian faces another day of unpredictable aftershocks they know, deep inside, there is a possibility that today, I might die.
The columnist for the Sunday Star Times received so many emails, she devoted her entire space, the following week to a heartfelt apology that began with the words, ‘SORRY. I really and truly am.’
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)