Lifestyle

Exploring quake city

New Regent St, in the Christchurch central business district, shows no signs of damage from the 2011 earthquake and has become a vibrant meeting place for residents and the city's visitors.
New Regent St, in the Christchurch central business district, shows no signs of damage from the 2011 earthquake and has become a vibrant meeting place for residents and the city's visitors. Letea Cavander

CHRISTCHURCH resident Meladey Bras knew there was something wrong when the locks on her filing cabinets snapped and shot across the room.

"I went under the desk, and then it was like it was silent in my own head but it wasn't silent. I think it was shock,” she said.

At 12.51pm on February 22, 2011, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit 10km south-east of Christchurch city at a depth of 5km.

Ms Bras, at the time a youth hostel manager, was working in her office in the city's central business district, on Manchester St. As thousands of residents like her tried to shelter from falling debris, or enact their emergency plans, the ground beneath whole suburbs and some of the CBD started turning to mud.

As the ground shook, a process called liquefaction occurred. Sand grains became packed closer together, squeezing the water up and out of the ground.

The worst-hit areas of the city were those where houses had been built on loosely compacted ancient river or beach sands and sandy soils close to bodies of water, around the Avon River and close to the estuary.

A lot of construction is taking place in the Christchurch central business district.
A lot of construction is taking place in the Christchurch central business district. Letea Cavander

Back in Manchester St, as the shaking eased, Ms Bras, a Christchurch resident of 35 years, crawled from under the desk to assess the damage.

"Everything was everywhere. You know, you have these crisis management plans - you have torches, you have all this stuff - ready for any contingency, but in an earthquake you're in a pile of rubble and there's no light. You've lost all your electricity.”

Luckily, Ms Bras kept a torch in her desk, which she pulled out. Her thoughts instantly turned to the staff and travellers at the youth hostels she managed.

"I didn't know if any of my staff were alive. I didn't know if any part of the building had come down,” she said.

"You're in shock but you're looking. You know, I had to climb up and over things to get out of my office. You just don't know what you're going to find. You don't know the extent of the damage.”

She started looking for her workers, and then began to co-ordinate people on the ground.

"People were trying to run up to get their things, but you can't have them doing that,” she said.

"You have to try and stop them.”

At 4.21pm, the Christchurch mayor at the time, Bob Parker, declared a state of emergency, which was followed by Prime Minister John Key's call of a national state of emergency the next day.

Outside the city's CBD, in what would eventually become part of the residential red zone, Monique Poulter, 24, was in her parents' home in Queensbury St, Burwood.

A building in the Christchurch central business district.
A building in the Christchurch central business district. Letea Cavander

"It was pretty scary. We'd already been through the September (2010) quake, but we watched the cracks open in our driveway and heard the flooding. It was scary watching the ground open and the whole house swaying,” she said.

"The house has since been demolished.”

Christchurch's residential red zone, deemed either too dangerous or uneconomic to rebuild in the short to medium term following the quake, snakes along the Avon River across 630ha and takes in thousands of homes.

In total, 185 people died, 164 people were seriously injured and there was major damage across the city.

A wrecked building in the Christchurch central business district.
A wrecked building in the Christchurch central business district. Letea Cavander

Six years after the quake a climate of hope is starting to prevail. Ms Poulter said some people were better off, financially, following the disaster.

"My parents ended up mortgage-free. So there are some really good stories out of it, but there are the people who are still fighting (for their payouts),” she said.

City resident Craig Gibb, 34, had a house in a suburb slightly east of the CBD. He bought it between the September 2010 quake and the February 2011 quake, and lived in it for three weeks before it was destroyed.

"I had four or five years of waiting. They (his insurance company) decided to pay me out so we agreed on a figure,” he said.

He bought another home.

"To be honest it suited me best to not gamble. Once you take the money, if there's any variations or anything unexpected it's on you.

"There are people out there that were financially crippled, we're just lucky it wasn't us.”

From left, Mitch Archbold, 24, Monique Poulter, 24 holding Jacob Archbold, 1, Caitlin Stockman, 24, holding Madison Gibb, eight months and Craig Gibb, 35, at the Re:Start Mall in Christchurch.
From left, Mitch Archbold, 24, Monique Poulter, 24 holding Jacob Archbold, 1, Caitlin Stockman, 24, holding Madison Gibb, eight months and Craig Gibb, 35, at the Re:Start Mall in Christchurch. Letea Cavander

Ms Poulter, a mum, said she was more wary of quakes since having her son, Jacob, one.

"But I'd never move from Christchurch. It's home. An earthquake won't make me move,” she said.

Ms Poulter's friend, Caitlin Stockman, 24, said she was excited for her and Ms Poulter's babies and the opportunities for them in the city, post-earthquake.

"Our generation has seen the rebuild, but our kids are the ones who will reap the rewards,” she said.

In the Christchurch CBD, the sound of grinding, hammering and reversing trucks is heard for much of the day.

On June 30, 2013, the last cordon of the central rebuild zone was removed and developers moved in. According to the Christchurch City Council, the cost of the city's rebuild is estimated at $40 billion.

Builder Vaughan Williams, 50, who was born and raised in Christchurch, lost his own home in the suburb Parklands and has since rebuilt. He said the mood in the city had improved over time, and the rebuild effort had generated much work for city residents and overseas workers.

Builder Vaughan Williams, who lost his own home in the 2011 earthquake, says construction jobs are finally starting to become available to locals, overseas workers and visitors.
Builder Vaughan Williams, who lost his own home in the 2011 earthquake, says construction jobs are finally starting to become available to locals, overseas workers and visitors. Letea Cavander

"There's a very large Filipino community in Christchurch now, and a lot of Irish and English. Pretty much if they can get here, they come. There's a lot of Brazilian and Chilean labourers too,” he said.

"Even people here on holidays are finding work through the agencies. The jobs are starting to come through now but they've taken a long time.”

Mr Williams said the building industry was quiet before the quake in February, 2011.

"After that it gave - it seems hard to say, but it gave Christchurch the kick it needed to get going again,” he said.

Mr Williams said things were a lot brighter in the city than they were two years ago, as fewer aftershocks hit Christchurch.

"People are a lot more happy within themselves, I think. I can honestly say that anyone who was here for the big ones, the minute you hear that noise coming, everything stops and you're just waiting to see what's going to happen,” he said.

"It's still in the back of your mind, but people are living with it now. People aren't scared to go into buildings any more, which is good.”

Mr Williams also said the city was becoming home to architecturally designed structures with strict building codes.

"You're a lot safer in them now,” he said.

Ms Poulter's partner, Mitch Archbold, 24, said he liked the change occurring in the city.

He said he had no shortage of work as a drain layer in the new suburbs springing up.

A cafe set up in a shipping container in the Christchurch central business district.
A cafe set up in a shipping container in the Christchurch central business district. Contributed

"It's the best thing that could have happened for me. When I started, you couldn't get a job. All the trades have boomed and the tradies have work,” Mr Archbold said.

Mr Gibb, Ms Stockman's partner, also was optimistic.

"It is an exciting time. The kids will be able to get trades or walk into jobs, and experience a new city from scratch,” he said.

Ms Bras, who lost her youth hostel job when the building collapsed and now works as a driver, said the future for the city was bright.

"For someone like me, who didn't get hurt, and didn't lose anyone, I see the future of Christchurch as very exciting,” she said.

"And you can't live in fear from the earthquakes. If you do, where are you going to go?

"We're on a thin crust over a molten ball of lava. That's called earth. It could happen anywhere.”

Topics:  anniversary christchurch christchurch earthquake rebuild


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