What is post-earthquake Christchurch after all?!

Cathedral Square information panels

Having changed from Technology to Social Sciences since I started my PhD studies in 2011 I learned that ‘you have to be less self-conscious’ and ‘put a bit of yourself’ on the stories you tell. So, although this blog has no intention of being any kind of life experience report, I decided to ‘put a bit of myself here’. I believe it is necessary to put in context what ‘post-earthquake Christchurch’ means (from my personal perspective) as I will extensively talk about it in the next posts.

I believe by now most of the world population will have heard about the 2011 February earthquake that hit Christchurch. Four days after the earthquake and 11 days after I first arrived in New Zealand I could finally breathe and put my personal experience into words. The text below is part of what I wrote in an old blog I had at that time, all the impressions in it were very recent at that stage and therefore affected by the nervous times when it was written.

“What I see now on TV is unbelievable, and the TV is the only way of having any idea of what is happening in the city I now live in. At this stage we were asked to stay at home, and it looks like the CBD (Central Business District) is going to be closed for months.

When I first came here in July 2010 I understood why Christchurch was considered the Garden City and certainly was one of the most beautiful cities in New Zealand. A city that looked after its heritage, was clean, organized, with educated people that seemed to always have been in love with the place where they lived. Today the reality is not anything like that, almost all the city icons came down, or will have to come. Engineers have been at the centre of the city and reported that at least one third of the buildings constructed in masonry that are still standing are not safer anymore and will have to be demolished. It is truly unbelievable that the gorgeous city I saw seven months ago no longer exists.

We Brazilians are very fortunate in that respect, at least our land is more stable. Feeling a shaking ground is an inexplicable sensation, and was undoubtedly the most terrifying thing I have ever felt. It has been four days, and I still cringe at any minimum noise. Perhaps the ‘soundtrack’ is what has left the worst memories of those 20 seconds. I was still in Brazil when the ‘first of the series’ – the September earthquake – happened and I knew that ‘aftershocks’ were still happening (i.e. minor and major tremors as a result of a larger earthquake), but I was not expecting anything like this! On September 4th, the quake reached 7.1 on the Richter scale and was 31km deep, some buildings were damaged, but nothing that really compromised the integrity of the city. It also happened at around 4am when the CBD was practically empty and no one was killed. Unbelievable how lucky people from Christchurch were at that stage.

This time the quake reached 6.3 on the Richter scale, weaker but about 4km deep and 10 km from the centre of Christchurch. Just four days after the event there are already countless buildings on the list to came down, 123 bodies were found and recognized and more than 200 are missing, among them are people from over 20 countries.

When the earthquake happened I had been here for exactly one week, had not felt any aftershock and had no idea of what was happening. I was  alone at home without nowhere to run because absolutely everything inside and outside the house kept shaking for about 20-25 seconds, and believe me, these were the longest 20 seconds I have lived! When it stopped I looked at the computer, which was then on the battery (luckily survived, but we did not have power for days!). Speakers, DVDs, books… Everything on the floor, almost falling from the bench was the microwave, and bottles, glasses and thermal mugs were also on the floor. The house was a mess.

The news showed many residents abandoning the city, some just with what they were wearing and their documents. Some people said to be afraid that the city could turn into a ghost town, which would not be a surprise considering the current condition. Many people are afraid, tourists no longer have much to see here and the city will suffer economic impact as the CBD will be closed for months.

I am still afraid to stay home alone, I still wake up at night frightened with aftershocks, they are quick but some pretty strong. But I decided to think like they are thinking here… Disasters can happen anywhere at any time, no one is free from earthquakes, floods, hurricanes etc… So the best now is to keep the mind and heart calm, help as we can and wait for the ‘normality’ to be reinstated.”

It has now been 2 years, 6 months and 16 days since that major earthquake. Now we know that 185 people lost their lives in that event, 115 in one single building that failed to respond to the earth’s movement. We know that hundreds of people had major injuries. We also know that Christchurch lost over a thousand buildings of its CBD, a very large part of its heritage and around 10,000 homes, in some cases this means basically whole suburbs. The CBD was just completely reopened last June (2 years and 3 months after the earthquake) and still is not the heart of the city’s business. Now I also know I was just one of the hundreds of thousands of people that did not fall into deep sleep for months after the event, that was the new ‘normal’. But most importantly Christchurch is now one of the most exciting places to be on earth, not because of earthquakes which finally are in the past, but because post-earthquake Christchurch is proving to be an exciting, resilient and creative place. The future will show what this city is capable of becoming and I am sure it will be a great city to live in. I personally am very proud of having stayed here and of having been able to see this beautiful city beginning to bloom again.

Christchurch Cathedral
Re:START, the Pop-Up Mall
Re:START, the Pop-Up Mall

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