On 4th September 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake erupted on the South Island, west of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city. The earthquake caused significant damage both in the city and across the Canterbury region. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.
Five months later, on 22nd February 2011, a 10 second, 6.3 aftershock erupted closer to Christchurch. Its vicinity to the city centre, combined with the damage caused by the previous earthquake and aftershocks, resulted in a catastrophic disaster that collapsed buildings and claimed 185 lives. The event was declared a national emergency and the news was reported around the globe.
Christchurch’s vibrant city life ground to a halt overnight. Four years later, much of the city centre is a designated red zone, with buildings abandoned or razed to the ground ahead of the mammoth reconstruction task. 50% of roads and 70% of buildings in the centre need to be repaired or replaced. The estimated cost of rebuilding the city keeps climbing, currently standing at around $40 billion (~£20 billion), while some economists predict it could take the New Zealand economy up to 100 years to completely recover.
After the earthquake, the population of the city dropped, as people moved on to rebuild their lives and careers. The construction industry boomed, but there was little else to stay for. My manager in Kaikoura remembers leaving her house the day after the earthquake. She describes the scenes as post-apocalyptic, with crumbling buildings and empty streets. Most of all, she remembers the silence. With the power gone and no transport running, the atmosphere was eerily calm. The air lacked even the sound of birdsong: the birds had fled the city. Soon after, she left too.
The atmosphere in Christchurch is still quiet but defiantly optimistic. The city continues to host cultural events and art fills the streets, much of it connected to the disaster. Christchurch believes it can be great again: even greater, perhaps, as it takes the opportunity to rebuild itself as a truly modern city. For now, it’s a community in transition.