From Under the Rubble: Earthquakes on New Zealand’s South Island

I spent the vast majority of 2016 on the South Island of New Zealand, an area deeply rooted in nature. The whole place seems to have spilled out from a page of National Geographic. It is a land of towering, jagged mountains and alpine forests, of receding glaciers, sandy beaches and bright blue lakes. Located on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, it is also a land of earthquakes.

Last year, New Zealand broke a record; 32,828 quakes were logged in 2016. Prior to this, 2011 held the title — the most memorable of these events undoubtedly being the disastrous earthquake that crippled the city of Christchurch, killing 185 people.

For the most part, I lived happily nestled within the picture-postcard landscapes of the South Island, grateful to be free from the relentless grey of the UK. However, on November 14th 2016, I was reminded how far from home I was. A powerful earthquake had struck close to Christchurch yet again — approximately 9 miles north-east of Culverden. Kaikoura, a town famous for its world-class whale watching, was the worst affected. Two people were killed; one crushed by the collapse of Elms Farm and another in a local ski field. With power and sewage systems failing, the seabed lifted metres into the air, and all routes into the township blocked by debris, a shaky 7.8 on the Richter scale had once more unleashed havoc in New Zealand.

Prior to the quake, I remember joking that owning a satnav in New Zealand was completely redundant. The population is sparse across the majority of the country, especially on the South Island. With only four major cities to choose from, directions are not difficult, route options are very limited and road signs are refreshingly direct; you are either driving here or there. However, it was only when the Kaikoura quake occurred that the fragility of the country’s infrastructure became apparent to me. Tourists were left stranded in Kaikoura with no accommodation, whilst further north, damage to Wellington’s ports meant that ferry crossings between the North and South Island were stopped. It took several weeks for an inland access road to be opened, allowing non-emergency traffic back in and out of Kaikoura. It was not until December 21st that State Highway 1, the famous coastal highway, was reopened, and even then, only in daylight hours. Some semblance of power was restored to Kaikoura a few days later, although sewage remained severely damaged for weeks longer.

This quake, although much less devastating, no doubt served as a painful reminder for South Islanders of the Christchurch disaster in February 2011. During my year in New Zealand, I visited Christchurch twice. Unsure what to expect as I walked through the streets, I was shocked to find not only the extent of the damage, but the enormity of the work still left to do. It feels like the quake happened six months ago, not six years. The echo of diggers reverberates through the city centre, buildings are low and laced with scaffolding, and empty lots are fenced off and littered with rubble.

Perhaps most haunting of all are the 185 white chairs that sit in neat lines on a busy road intersection. Each chair represents a life lost in the quake: a baby’s car seat, a stool, a school chair, a bean bag, a lonely armchair, each whitewashed and empty. Following the quake, thousands were made homeless and huge sections of the city deemed uninhabitable. The cathedral barely stands today, half-crumbled to the ground, derelict, and graced only by roosting birds. The financial cost of rebuilding the city has been estimated at around NZ$40bn (c. £22.6bn) but, money aside, the quake has cost the residents far more.

185 Chairs Memorial, Christchurch (author’s own)

Although the revival of the city is far from complete, New Zealand’s resilience is evident. Christchurch continues to draw the attention of hundreds of tourists and now centres many of its attractions around its misfortune; something I found particularly heart-breaking.

However, the more time I spent in Christchurch, the more I discovered that the old spirit of the city seemed to linger. Amidst the rubble and the building sites, slowly but surely daisies are pushing through the dirt. The Re:Start Mall, a new shopping centre made entirely from shipping containers, has become a hive of delicious street food, coffee shops and retail outlets.

The Cardboard Cathedral is also something to behold. This temporary substitute is a work of architectural genius by Shigeru Ban and sits several blocks away from the original cathedral square. Shipping crates once again make an appearance here, but they are dwarfed by the enormity of the 96 reinforced cardboard tubes that make up the building. Even the cross on the front of the altar is made from two intersecting cardboard cylinders, lit from above through stunning stained glass windows.

The Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch (author’s own)

In the wake of November’s devastation, Kaikoura has reinstated its road networks and can now focus on reviving its major lifeline: tourism. Speaking as someone who has spent a year in this country, which was absolutely, definitely, categorically not long enough, I implore you to visit Christchurch and Kaikoura, to see the impact of the quakes, to explore the memorials and the museums and to be a part of their rejuvenation. In a world of such scenery and contrast, it is humbling to be reminded of how small we are and how beautiful and dangerous and incredible it is to live on this earth.


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