Town that lost its heart

2011-12-14 00:00

ALMOST one year after the February 21 earthquake that devastated Christchurch, the Canterbury Earthquake Authority (Cera), a government-led recovery body, has opened up bus tours behind the cordons of the ruined central business district of the city.

Few other than demolition crews, Christchurch City Council staff, Cera officials and shop owners, scurrying in to retrieve valuable documents and goods, have been allowed into the red-zoned CBD the past year.

The telephone bookings bring Cera telephone lines to a standstill. The tours are for a few weeks only and are fully booked as soon as they are released. This is despite the warnings that come with the booking slips that more buildings may fall if there is a tremor during the tour.

Tourists and Christchurch residents have until now relied on televised images and glimpses over the steel and timber fences that make up the cordon for an idea of what the CBD looks like. Images of people fleeing the shaking city are still too recent.

Cera officials warn that the tours can produce strong emotion. Cards for counselling services are handed out on the bus, which passes quickly through a sentry gate and into the red zone.

To the left, shoppers mill around on the other side of the cordon — eating, texting and chatting. To the right, empty streets stretch bleakly ahead. The dust of demolition has replaced the silt of liquefaction — everything is grey.

The dug-out foundations of demolished buildings stand out like missing molars, creating disorientation in the midst of what used to be a cityscape many residents could navigate through by memory.

In a clothing shop window a sign advertises a summer sale, but mannequins in the window have been stripped of any clothing they were wearing. Civil Defence has over the months staggered visits into the red zone of the CBD for retailers to salvage or destroy what they can to meet insurers’ requirements. The sign makes you blink, for it is summer now. But this is last summer, in the run-up to last Christmas, when Christchurch thought it was lucky to escape a magnitude 7,1 earthquake in September 2010 so lightly.

The Boxing Day quake gave a hint that the earthquakes were not over. February 21 brought the images that were relayed out to the rest of the world. June 13 and the two sharp, shallow quakes — the second just six kilometres from the surface — brought despair. Many families made the hard choice to leave the city and rebuild their lives elsewhere.

It has been a difficult year. Residential streets particularly badly hit now come adorned with signs entreating passers-by to drive at 30 km an hour. “Our houses are shaking”, the signs inform. Nerves shredded by constant aftershocks throughout the night can no longer differentiate bet­ween heavy trucks going past and new tremors. It doesn’t matter anyhow, both threaten the stability of homes. The topic on everyone’s lips this past year has been “will it stop?”

Moon man Ken Ring, who uses lunar orbits to predict the weather and earthquakes, brought new terrors with his predictions of more big shocks. The date proclaimed passes but with the next day comes a new prediction until the newspapers simply stop printing his quotes.

Then it is the turn of all the experts. The seismologists who keep reading us our chances of another big one. The papers stop printing these too.

Then the government makes an offer to buy out people’s homes at their municipal rating values. These are the homes in the red residential zones, which geotech engineers say can’t be rebuilt on. It is too expensive to remediate the land.

Some rejoice, choosing to take the money and run.

Others can’t let go of the past. The schools their children went to, the corner dairy*, their communities all exert too great a pull. This is the comfort zone and it is familiar. They vow to stay on, saying the government can’t force them off their land.

The newspapers say 38% of business owners in the CBD won’t go back. Insurance is their biggest worry, as well as a public that is too scared to go back. It is a sober group that climbs off the bus at the end of the tour. Whatever comes next, it will be a new city.

* Corner café.

• Former Witness feature writer Laura Melville works in Christchurch but lives outside the affected area. She reports that she “was at work for the June quake, [which was] not pleasant. I was hanging onto the mail box outside. You couldn’t even stand”.

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