*I visited Christchurch in September 2014. Now that more time has passed, the recovery effort is likely more advanced.
I knew that Christchurch was a city still in recovery. The devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 were news all over the world. In fact, it’s the main reason I wanted to come to see it. Being Irish, natural disasters of any kind are not a familiar experience to me, so a part of me had this morbid curiosity to see what it looked like, even if it was just the aftermath. But Christchurch really took me by surprise. Many tell of the rebirth of a city brought low, of the renaissance of the Canterbury capital. But to me, this is what I always imagined a war zone would look like. Three years on and the scars are everywhere. 80% of the city’s centre has been or is in the process of being demolished, leaving gaping holes surrounded by cross-wire fencing. Most of the buildings still standing are covered in scaffolding, or completely deserted. Hazard notices cover century-old doorways. Cranes dominate the skyline and bright orange road cones are the city’s latest fashion accessory.
I arrived into Christchurch on the evening of the fourth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, the one that started this whole mess. It was still early, around six o’clock. My first impression was that it was an eerie place, creepy almost. It felt like a ghost town. Where were all the people? No one walks the streets after dark. Anyone who does walk abroad, walks with quiet footsteps, speaking in whispers. Maybe there is a night life here, but none that I could see. In search of dinner, it took me half an hour to find a restaurant, let alone one that was open.
The greatest shock to me was the Cathedral. I had heard of the ruin of the great church, seen photos. But those photos are nothing compared to seeing it in front of you. The missing tower, the piles of rubble; it’s a complete mess. One side’s facade is completely missing. Birds fly freely from the darkness within, the flapping of their wings heard from the street as they rest on the exposed rafters. The beauty of the cathedral is still visible, echos of its glorious past. Debate rages on about its future: demolition or restoration. I hope for the latter, for though the church’s replacement, the nearby Cardboard Cathedral, is a stunning leap forward in architecture and light, the destruction of such grandeur and grace would be a huge shame.
*Update 2017 – a majority vote in favour of reinstating the cathedral means that demolition has been removed as an option. The hope is the cathedral will be reconstructed and open within 10 years.
At first I couldn’t understand how more progress had not been made in the reconstruction. It’s been over three years, and yet the damage looks only months old. What had they been doing? It was only after visiting Quake City – a wonderful exhibition on the history of earthquakes in the Christchurch region – that I fully understood. The gaping holes, the collapsed roofs, the cracks in the pavements, the empty shop windows – this was all just a fraction of the damage that had occurred.
But amongst the devastation, life is returning. Newly-bared walls bereft of neighbours are adorned with splashes of colour in the form of huge pieces of art – some commissioned, some not. Graffiti is the new style in this city. And some of it is magnificent. With the city’s Art Gallery still closed, the streets have become the canvas. Down every alley, colour draws the eye away from the ruins, if only for a short while. But some of the graffiti has a far more morbid purpose. While wandering the streets, I had noticed some windows and doors emblazoned with a strange circular mark in varying colours, surrounding indecipherable letter and number combinations. I thought it a strange form of graffiti. It was only later that I learned the purpose of the markings. During the relief effort that followed the February 2011 earthquake, volunteer rescuers would search each building for survivors. These markings indicated that the building had been searched – and whether any bodies had been found that needed retrieving.
The February 2011 earthquake claimed 185 lives. Considering the damage I witnessed, I’m surprised the death toll wasn’t much higher. Each one of those lives lost are commemorated in the nearby 185 White Chairs Memorial, a small grassy area filled with rows of different types of chairs, each one painted a stark white and each representing a victim in its own way. Possibly the most horrific is the baby car seat sitting forlornly in the front row, a shrivelled yellow flower inside, grimy from exposure to the elements.
Yes, Christchurch is rebuilding. Yes, there is life is clawing it’s way back into to a devastated city. But the scars are still there, and may always be. Modern art adorn the bared walls, breathing a small breath of life into what otherwise feels like a dying place. Re:START, a shopping mall created from shipping containers, has become a new focus for the city. But the fact is, many of my photos were taken through wire fences, or gaps in temporary construction barriers. It’s only been four years, but Christchurch still has a long road ahead. But it’s a road that could be quite fascinating to those of us in the outside world looking in.
Have you ever been to Christchurch, either before or after the earthquakes? Or have you seen this kind of damage somewhere else?
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.