return to christchurch

Twelve Red Crossers from all over the world – Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Malaysia – have come together ahead of a Disasters In Developed Countries workshop in Melbourne. We visit our NZ cousins and hear the wisdom of their words following the tragic earthquakes in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.

A flying visit to New Zealand takes us from Auckland, to Wellington, to Christchurch in less than thirty hours. On the hotel courtesy bus from Christchurch Airport we look at each other, trying to remember how long ago we met, and realise it was only the morning before. It already feels like we have been through so much more than that together.

At first glance everything in the city looks perfectly normal. On the way into the city centre, the roads are quiet but nothing seems amiss until I start to notice the odd house or two, the odd fence or two. Here and there a handful of bricks are missing, a few roof tiles have slid away, a boundary wall is slightly off-skew, a window is boarded up. The potholes in the roads are larger than they ought to be. I start to recognise the route from the airport to the Red Cross offices, and wonder where all the portaloos have gone.

We have just a few minutes to check in at our airport hotel, and we are off again on a tiki tour (as they say here). As we drive along, evidence of earthquake damage starts to become more and more obvious. A house boarded up here, a balcony sheared off there. A church still cordoned off with temporary fencing. Almost-derelict strip malls, the shop wares still on display through filthy windows. An abandoned hotel, dining chairs stacked up in one ground floor room whilst a balcony table still holds the untidied detritus of a drinks party eighteen months ago.

First stop is the centre of Christchurch, where a senior colleague from the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Agency briefs us on the disaster recovery work happening here since September 2010, when the first decent-sized earthquake hit. We sit in a modern office suite around the corner from the Christchurch Art Gallery, where I spent an interesting few shifts back in February 2011. I sit alongside our host at a glass-topped boardroom table and try to resist the urge to turn and look at the scene outside.

Later, Linda and Barry from CERA usher us onto our bus and take us slowly around the central Red Zone. Block by block they point out the tragic results of 22 February 2011: seemingly perfect buildings damaged beyond repair, river bridges buckled and twisted, empty lots where people died and the rubble has already been removed. The whole of the central business district is cordoned off still, and as quiet as a ghost town. The beautiful cathedral stands broken and alone, held up by a steel skeleton that clashes with the classical stone workmanship and the rose-window-shaped hole in the gable wall. Incongruously, across the road stands a seemingly untouched building – the old Post Office – that had been taken over by a Starbucks. Barry assures us it is also condemned. A wall poster advertises a Santana concert back in 2011: I suppose it never went ahead. In the cathedral square a portable unit offering chess boards for hire sits alone and unsupervised. I forget to ask whether it is left over from before the earthquake, or whether people can actually come in here now to play chess in this lonely place.

Cashel Street offers a ray of hope, in the shape of the Re-Start Mall – a mini-shopping area made entirely of shipping containers. Already there is talk of the mall having to close, as the landowners want the land back to redevelop. But we shall see. Barry and Linda speak knowledgeably and passionately about their city: they were both personally impacted by the earthquake, and seem to watch every change, every improvement with eager eyes.

Linda asks the bus driver to stop at her favourite place: a street junction that one day will be home to the new arts precinct, a regenerated park and a restored riverbank area. “Look around you”, she urges. “One day you will come back to Christchurch and this precinct will be alive with people. It will be beautiful again, and you will think back to today and you won’t be able to remember how it is now. This is my favourite place in Christchurch”, she smiles quietly.

The buildings where people died are looked after particularly carefully. Linda remembers what our very own Kate Brady from Australian Red Cross told her about the aftermath of the death of the Princess of Wales in the UK. Day after day, mounds of flowers, toys and other tributes built up at the gates of Kensington Palace. Eventually this enormous memorial had to be reduced and taken away for health reasons. So workmen came to the site late at night, dressed in suits (not high-visibility work gear) and driving unmarked cars. They carefully packed the flowers and toys and other mementos into boxes and took them away, eventually mulching all the organic material and putting the mulch onto the memorial garden. This is what Christchurch does now: flowers and other mementos are respectfully tidied away, the flowers mulched and strewn on the city gardens, and the mementos stored to be displayed in the museum. A notice at the various sites explains what happens so that relatives and friends can understand.

As we head back to the cathedral square, Linda points out Twinkle-Toes, an enormous 200-tonne crane munching slowly away at the PwC building. She is the largest excavator crane in operation in the southern hemisphere. We watch her take bite-sized chunks out of the 250-foot building and wonder how long it will take for her to demolish the whole thing.

Barry is replaced by Garry, a property manager from CERA who accompanies us eastwards along the Red Zone, pointing out the various condemned and otherwise classified buildings. In an hour we become familiar with the red, orange and green zones, and what the Technical Categories TC1, TC2 and TC3 mean. We drive along the river’s edge, empty forlorn houses to our left and the river bank itself all over the place to our right. Footbridges have turned into twisted Dali-esque sculptures. Liquefaction has turned land into river, and river into land. In some places the river banks have moved towards each other by a metre or more.

We visit a small derelict development of retirement units where Garry shows us some of the devastation close up. The liquefaction was so severe here that the living areas are filled with a metre or more of silt, and other buildings have sunk into the ground by maybe two metres. I stand beside one sunken house and the guttering is at shoulder height.

Garry himself had been working in the city when the February 2011 earthquake struck. He dived for cover under his desk, but then tried to run for the door: he genuinely thought the building was going to collapse and take him with it. He lived out of town with his brother while he waited for his own house to be made safe, and when he finally took receipt of the grants he was entitled to, he immediately donated them back to Red Cross because he believed others were more in need. The stories he, Linda and Barry told reminded us all that in the main, Christchurch is being rebuilt by people who have themselves been touched by this devastating event, and that the city is literally being rebuilt by its own inhabitants, physically and socially.

The bus is quiet as we make our way back into the city’s Red Zone. Like Barry did before her, Linda offers her heartfelt thanks to us as Red Cross representatives for the work our NZ colleagues have done and continue to do for the people of Christchurch. I sit as I have done before when thanks have been offered in other places, feeling unworthy and humbled: it wasn’t me. It wasn’t just us. It’s just our job. It’s what anyone would have done.

Later, I get ready for bed and despite the ground beneath us remaining blissfully immobile today, I place my trainers carefully by the bed, shoelaces loosened to make it easy if I need to jump out of bed and run. I lay out an outfit of warm clothes on my rainjacket, easy to grab as I go. My passport and mobile phones are to hand and I have figured out what might be the best direction to run. Luckily, I am so worn out tonight that I don’t think I’ll have any problems sleeping.

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