Lest we Forget: Christchurch and its People – an outside view
My mouth is bone dry. I draw back from the fissures in front of me as a wave of vertigo threatens, the cracks in the asphalt appearing like veins on the back of some monstrous hand. Before me only the roofline of the home clinging to the edge of the cliff is visible, its chimney lurching sideways at a sickening angle, the house hanging over the dizzying drop below.
I am in Clifton Terrace high above the road to Sumner in Christchurch. It is the end of July and the road has only just reopened nearly five months after the huge February aftershock. I can see why, it must have been choked with debris and danger and I am standing on what was once the parking area and garaging for several homes. I lower my camera and walk downhill trying to imagine the sheer terror experienced by anyone who had been in those houses at lunchtime on February the 22nd. . I see the remnants of a deck hanging over the stunning views many metres below. It is eerie, the broken remains of once elegant terracotta pots and their plants still lie there as though stopped in time, it reminds me of the tales of the Marie Celeste, the people mysteriously missing. A final glance down the banks reveals a delicately wrought gate swinging crookedly in the breeze- it leads to nowhere – the house has gone.
I live in Blenheim and I have come to Christchurch to house sit and look after dog Max for my daughter and her fiancé while they take their first escape since last September from all the stress. They are in Melbourne and I want to understand what it is like for people here long after the initial dramatic events when the adrenalin rush has stopped cold and the reality of simply coping from day to day has become the norm.
Now I am on the steps of the Bridge of Remembrance at the foot of Cashel St. right at the edge of the Red Zone in the CBD. They are cracked and askew but amazingly enough the arch still stands. Little could the veterans have envisaged that one day this memorial would frame a different dead of their city and the wholesale destruction of its heart. Through the arch the doomed Hotel Grand Chancellor is clearly seen. Immediately next door on the Avon’s banks a small crowd watches the demolition of the DTZ building. Only a fence separates us from Oxford Terrace and the foot of the Mall and the giant crane operating the wrecking ball. There is an eerie silence- no excited buzz – these are people watching yet another part of their history turning into rubble before their eyes. The wrecking ball, delicately positioned, drops and is followed by the cracking and rending of floor after floor and the debris tumbles down followed by a suffocating explosion of dust. It starts to clear and an extraordinary sight greets us. Hundreds and hundreds of sheets of paper drift down like giant confetti.
One of the reasons I want to walk and drive across the city is that so much of the television media attention has focussed on the CBD and the eastern suburbs. There is no question that these areas were the worst hit and they also made for the most dramatic images. While there have been some excellent stories showing the courage and grit of individuals and groups there has also been a disturbing concentration of people speaking out who appear to expect the government, the council, the insurance companies and everyone else to put their lives back exactly as they were before September 2010. They feel “neglected” they say and that they know it “is because they are poor” and I want to see how other suburbs in the perceived slightly better off areas are coping as well as the admittedly devastated eastern locations. It is harmful coverage as word is trickling back to Christchurch people that there are instances of outside reaction becoming “well they have had a tragedy but really it’s time to get over it”
St Martins where I am staying is a perfect example of many suburbs in Christchurch. Just before my family left for Melbourne they were stricken to learn that their two story town house in the orange zone is almost certainly irrepairable and that there is great uncertainty over the land. Nearby, builders found that they had to go down an incredible seventeen metres to find solid rock.
Just a minute away was the New World and shopping mall. It is now a hideous flattened wasteland with only a lonely sign to mark it was ever there. Across the road a line of neighbourhood small shops and services is abandoned. St Martins has lost its whole neighbourhood centre – the place to shop, meet friends, have a coffee, pick up a treat from the baker, buy a tonic for that cough from the chemist. They have lost everything.
St Martins also waited a long time for the portaloos – digging holes in the back yards. There was no student army for the liquefaction, neighbours dug – shovelled – carted for days to get the stuff out to the road edges When someone with power connected cooked a roast they made extra dinners for fellow diggers. No helicopters from those wonderful people in Rangiora brought hot meals and water and bucket toilets to suburbs like St Martins. I never saw an interview in similar areas- they all just got on with it. The roads were like a sea of greasy grey waves.
Another day and I am heading for Lyttleton. On the way I need a few supplies and petrol. I pull into a large shopping area and see various stores operating. Spotting a huge Countdown supermarket I pull in and think how great the parking is. No wonder – it has been shut down for months – weirdly there is one lone man sitting inside the doors at a table and he shakes his head. What could he be doing there? Now I look for gas and find how difficult this is too, the first and second gas stations I come to are still inoperable and I finally find a third open and working. As I enter the tunnel I find that for the first time I feel rather nervous .It is such a long tunnel and I can feel the tons and tons of rock pressing overhead. I realise that I am hunching my shoulders and pulling in my neck like a nervous turtle. . However I tell myself over and over it is a tribute to the engineers of the 1960’s as the tunnel withstood all the recent seismic events. I repeat this like a mantra until I gratefully see daylight at the end.
Lyttleton is almost unrecognisable. I have to pick my time carefully to cross the road as there seems to be an endless chain of huge demolition trucks thundering by. The last vestige of the famous Timeball has gone, the main street with its funky bars and cafes is now mostly an avenue of wire and boards with the trucks churning the debris into their voracious throats. I feel apprehensive as anyone does with a camera. Would I be regarded as something of a voyeur? Would I be resented? On the contrary everywhere I go in Christchurch people are so friendly and eager to share their experiences. A lady tells me that her hundred year old wooden house survived but a neighbour’s brick house collapsed and took a out a wall. She says that it is a fantastic community here and they are positive about the rebuild of their charming township. I am coming to see that the sharing of the experiences is a great part of the healing process for the people of Canterbury.
This morning I jolt awake to a 5.1 aftershock. It has made the insurers very jumpy yet again. In five days I have experienced three aftershocks. There will be many more we do not feel. Cantabrians are heading towards 7000! This is the day I venture into New Brighton, Bexley, Avonside, Richmond and some other areas unfamiliar to me. Road works are so extensive that long detours are often necessary following endless arrows. You can see the immense amount of work already done on the roads but it is just overwhelming to find how much is still to be achieved. A glance down side roads shows street after street with silty surfaces and instead of trees the avenues consist of portaloos. I hear that they are due to be removed from the city soon but it is astonishing to see streets from Cashmere to the sea still prickled with them like intrusive cacti. Stopped at a red light I look to my right and there is yet another undulating wreck of a local corner shopping centre
Walking along Avonside Drive near the deserted high school, the road and footpath are still extensively damaged and I have to pick my way carefully. An impressive brick home is cut off by a driveway so tortured by the movement of the quakes that it is one of the images most expressive to me of their sheer violence. A house tilts at an impossible angle. I walk around New Brighton and the quaint old buildings I once photographed are an anonymous space and across the road the old blue Ozone House with the wonderful stained glass windows looks out with a blind wooden stare.
Unlike Europeans we Kiwis are obsessed with home ownership. We love our own patch. We go into huge debt and make the biggest purchase of our lives with little hesitation. This is our sanctuary, our refuge. We close our front door and shut out the cranky boss or the lousy traffic and gratefully receive jammy hugs from our offspring. We kick off our shoes and pour a beer or a glass of wine. We are home. Throw cataclysmic events into the mix, take away or damage our homes and there are profoundly Stygian effects on our national psyche. The cave is no longer safe.
Walking along in Richmond I pause at the Methodist Church. The main building appears fine but an adjoining wing is a complete wreck. Standing in the centre is the freakish sight of one perfect stained glass window. I sit next to a lady having a quick lunch on a bench in front of the church. She is a practice nurse and tells me of the huge amount of stress she sees with couples having to share their homes with elderly parents. I think of the inevitable tensions. Many of us in countries in the west are not so good at sharing our homes with different generations. After the first events when everyone did their very best, months later problems arise. Parents criticizing their adult children over the upbringing of their children. Both parties longing to regain their space and their privacy. They all want their old life back and it may be months and years before this eventuates in a new form.
I have been driving and walking for hours and am gasping for my caffeine fix. It seems a trivial yearning when surrounded by such scenes but this too is something sorely missed by people I meet. Oh for Oxford Terrace and its great cafes, my last visit there was on a wonderful summer’s night near Christmas. As the sky deepened into that magic blue, lights twinkled everywhere, a riverside delight. There is nowhere really to go and when you find someone open you tumble through the doors insane with gratitude, wanting to hug the barista as your lungs sweep in the best aroma in the world – the scent of freshly ground coffee beans. I have travelled out to Sumner, once a stunning sea side drive now a lopsided avenue of ugly containers holding back the rocks. At the little coffee shop a lady sits beside me and I find that she has been recruited by Fletchers who have a major part in the city’s rebuild. They have told her to expect at least five years employment. Rejuvenated, I meet people with a cheerful and positive air and a young man tells me he has moved into three different rental properties after severe damage to the first two, but he is staying in the area as he so enjoys living here.
The cliffs loom over Sumner a brooding menace in their proximity to the town. Great piles of rock are glimpsed behind the container fringe, and some small side roads end in houses the sad victims of the plunging six thousand year old cliff faces. No one dreamt of this happening before, the occasional rock fell over the years but the February quake was ten times greater in force than the September original quake. It created fissures hundreds of metres long and ripped houses apart. Fifteen metres of cliff front plunged in mighty plumes of dust and rocks the size of dumpsters.
Max and I settle in front of the cosy fire grateful for warmth. We can’t go through the twisted front door but we don’t suffer draughts and fungi growing on mouldy carpets. That night jumping awake after a small shake I can’t get back to sleep. I find myself worrying about all those road and service workers spending endless hours on the roads. Clouds of the fine dust from the silt rose around them today as I made my way around the diggers. What will be the long term effect of inhaling such contaminated dust?
I take a friend today out to Oxford to lunch at Jo Seager’s restaurant and cooking school. I want to give her a break out of the city. She lives in Bishopdale a western suburb regarded as lightly damaged. I confidently pull in to a large gas station to find it too has been shut down for months. . A small one nearer her home is open but has only just resumed business. She shows me her house and while it can be repaired there are still long cracks and uncertainty about a small pool. To our astonishment, Jo’s restaurant is booked out with dozens of other Christchurch refugees all having the same idea. We go on a waiting list and later enjoy a delectable lunch. As we return to the city a little sleet and dropping temperatures make us aware of a bad weather forecast and I drop my friend at home and go into Durham Street and the city centre. As I gaze through the fence to the city heart the wide completely empty streets evoke intense sadness – I expect to see tumbleweed slowly bowling across the road and John Wayne appearing hand on gun in a rerun of High Noon.
Nearby I am surprised to see that a tourist bus is back expelling eager gamblers at the doors of the brightly lit Casino. Inside only the lift well appears damaged and the players haven’t changed. The tables are full mostly of Asian men intensely focused and oblivious to all around them. In front of the poker machines the same blank faces hope for the rattle of the big payout. Outside again and it is quite bizarre as immediately butted against the wall of the Casino the familiar wire fence guards the hungry machinery and the rubble of another destroyed street. A few blocks away and a roof of St Luke’s is crouching without walls in a sad genuflection. It is getting dark now the sky fierce and glowering and I pause to read the sign on a fence darted with dying flowers. It asks all who look at this house to remember that these apartments were once their homes. The two story former grand old wooden house is accordion pleated and has wheezed out its last sigh.
It is Monday morning and the family are due back today and I should be on my way home. I draw back the curtains and am transported to Finland! I am sure Donner and Blitzen will appear and delight us. It is all very beautiful until I realise my car is blocked in and deep in snow. All flights are cancelled. Max is stuck with me and regards me with horror when I let her out. One paw in that mysterious freezing whiteness and she (yes, she)! darts inside and goes round and round the couch so I can’t put her out again. Some quick wit on twitter says it is “the icing on the quake.” The family staggers exhausted through the door at midnight on Tuesday after miserable hours spent in airports and Max greets them with ecstatic slobber. I can’t get out until Wednesday lunchtime when I am finally on my way.
Picking carefully through snow and slush piled roundabouts I find the northern exit now open and it takes me past the Christchurch Art Gallery. This ice queen of rippling glass stands tall surrounded by her fallen subjects. She proves brilliant engineering can design safe buildings. None of us can forget the images sent all over the world when this was the temporary civil defence centre. A weary mayor Bob Parker, day after day telling us news that only seemed to become worse .Grim heads of police and essential services updating us every few hours, the death toll rising and the remarkable work of the two signers to the deaf.
What do I take away from these ten days? I have travelled from the broken winged Sign of the Takahe to New Brighton, from Hornby to much stricken Kaiapoi, Oxford to Akaroa, Mt Pleasant to Bishopdale and Belfast and many points in between. First is the resilience of the people of Canterbury and their humour and courage. Second, the feeling of being absolutely overwhelmed by the magnitude of this catastrophe. No suburb, no man, woman or child, neither rich nor poor and all those in between has escaped the stress, the fear, the anxiety for their futures. Third, the enormity of the undertaking for the recovery of roads, the essential services and community centres the schools and sportsgrounds .is way beyond what I had imagined nearly a year down the track. Officials are talking ten to twenty years.
As I enter the outskirts of Blenheim, the sun shines, there are no snow bound or damaged roads. Houses are not fractured and garden walls not tumbling on to the footpaths. The only portaloos are for the pruners in the vineyards. I feel as though I am in a parallel universe, part of some sci-fi movie and yet the reality of Christchurch is only a few hundred kilometres down the road.
At home later I hear Kaiapoi reels as it finds that one in five homes can never be rebuilt. The good news for Christchurch is the release of the draft plan for the rebuilding of the city It is the distillation of over 100,000 ideas submitted by residents. It is exciting, innovative, fresh and very green .and a glimpse of a future shimmering with promise. Cantabrians I salute you. We will not forget.