Two Years After the Quake
Today I had the opportunity to visit the city of Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. Today is also the two-year anniversary of the massive earthquake that rocked the city, collapsed buildings and killed 185 people.
The last time I was in downtown Christchurch was in early 2010. Immediately today I was impressed, not by what I saw of the earthquake’s damage, but by what I did not see. Statues were missing from their pedestals, churches were missing spires, and buildings were missing walls and roofs. I became completely disoriented as I walked around because nothing looked familiar. Where there used to be a row of thriving bars and restaurants along the river, there’s now just a huge, flat, dirt parking lot. The same earthen empty lots punctuate every city block. They are the former sites of tall city buildings. Now just twisted rebar remains jut up from ground, marking where the corners of the building used to be. Many structures stand in half collapsing states, surrounded by chicken wire fences and orange road cones. The road cones are everywhere directing cars and foot traffic around the disheveled remains of the city.
One square mile in the central business district (CBD) is completely off limits and peeking through the fence around it I could see the crumbling cathedral and the central square that I walked through many times to buy books, get lunch, or visit an internet café. The city had a sad air to it today, but life goes on all around the fallen structures.
A bright point in the crumbling CBD is a little area known as the Re:Start Mall. Old shipping containers, like those you see on 18-wheelers, trains, and cargo ships, have been repurposed and made into stores and food stalls. There are containers turned into clothing stores – from high fashion to mountaineering gear – in addition to skate and surf shops, and stores selling New Zealand novelties and handmade crafts. I even saw several containers welded together that had been made into a Mac store. I had Indian food for lunch and a friend bought a falafel pocket, both from little kitchens set up in old containers. Some had been plumbed and turned into bathroom stalls, complete with sinks and hand dryers. It’s fabulous to see the progressive thinking, the bright spot of commerce and trade, and the reuse of a plentiful resource – containers that would otherwise be rusting away in an empty lot somewhere.
At 12:51 pm the entire mall area fell silent. The stores were locked up and everyone gathered in a central area to observe two minutes of silence in remembrance of the people who died in the earthquake. I stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowd with people who had likely lived through the scariest experience of their lives. There were some stiffled tears in the gathering, a crying baby, but on the whole, I felt a spirit of survival, strength and forward vision. Right after the service, I listened to two young women behind me happily talking about an upcoming wedding, and people wandered back to open their businesses and greet their customers. This city will thrive again – but only after many years of rebuilding.