When Don Mathias, a self-employed machinist and welder in Christchurch, New Zealand, saw a four-ton lathe leaping across the floor of his workshop, he knew this was no ordinary earthquake.
“Everything jumped up in the air,” said the 53-year-old. “It was like being charged by a bull. When I saw that lathe moving I thought, ‘Nowhere’s safe in this building. I’ve got to get out.’”
With more debris raining down from the mezzanine floor above, he staggered through the door and ran down an alleyway … and straight into a flight of stairs that weren’t there two minutes earlier.
Mathias survived the massive February 22, 2011, earthquake with nothing worse than some nasty bruising; his wife Carol and five children, aged 13 to 24, also escaped unharmed. Others weren’t so lucky.
The 6.3 quake, its epicenter barely three miles from the city, claimed 185 lives, injured hundreds of others, damaged around 160,000 homes — thousands of them beyond repair — and left much of the city’s central business district in ruins.
The death toll was the fourth highest in a single event in New Zealand’s history. Among the dead were 78 tourists and language students from more than a dozen countries.
As the city soberly marks the first anniversary of this devastating natural disaster, residents and policymakers are still struggling to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and move on.
Nerves have been shredded by thousands of aftershocks, some of them major jolts. Quakes measuring magnitude 5.8 and 6.0 rocked the city last June, and on December 23, tremors of 5.8 and 5.9 dampened Christmas spirits. A 4.1 rattled residents again just last week.
Much of the city center, where the spire of the landmark cathedral came crashing down, is considered so potentially unstable and dangerous that it remains off limits, even to property owners.
“The heart of the city is cordoned off,” says deputy mayor Ngaire Button. “We’re still in demolition mode. The people of Christchurch are not prepared to take any more risks. So if in doubt, it’s getting pushed down.”
Mel Weddell, senior media advisor with the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority, says of about 2800 offices, shops, restaurants and other commercial buildings, between 1,000 and 1,200 will need to be demolished or partially demolished.
“Effectively, 40 percent of our building stock in the central city has gone,” says Peter Townsend, chief executive of the provincial Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce.
“And … as we get into forensic analysis of some of the buildings that are still standing, we are learning that many of those have been damaged beyond repair. You just can’t see it.”
Christchurch is having a lively debate about how best to restore the city center and business district with some arguing that, for practical and financial reasons, it’s foolhardy to attempt to rebuild.
However, Button is adamant that the center must be restored as the city’s economic hub and she relishes the opportunity to rebuild, re-engineer and redesign almost from scratch.
Her vision is for “a 21st-century city” with an emphasis on green, sustainable, low-rise buildings, public transport, pedestrians, and cyclists. “It will be very different in many ways to what we had in the past,” she says. “We can change the rules.”
Townsend has visited Santa Cruz, California, to see the “excellent models” adopted there to rebuild its downtown after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake that also caused major damage in San Francisco.
However, he said it’s hard to make comparisons because of the enormity of the Christchurch event where damage totals “close to NZ$40 billion” and recovery is likely to take 10 to 15 years.
Indeed, how Christchurch residents, the city council, and the New Zealand government react to this massive calamity may one day provide a useful guide for quake-hit communities in the western United States and other seismically active and industrialized locales.
However, some people have already had enough. According to Statistics New Zealand, the city of around 380,000, which had been growing steadily, lost almost 9,000 people in the year ending June 30.
That confirms anecdotal reports of jittery residents leaving town, some taking with them insurance payouts for damaged homes or businesses. “There are a lot of battle-weary people,” says Button. “There’s definitely a higher stress level than there was before.”
Christchurch’s woes began in September 2010 when a whopping 7.1 temblor shook the area. Luckily that happened at 4 o’clock on a Saturday morning and was centered about 20 miles out of town, so while buildings were damaged, no one was hurt.
The February 22 quake, striking at lunchtime on a Tuesday, is thought to have finished off a number of weakened structures and sadly found plenty of potential victims in offices, classrooms and cafes, or out in the busy central city streets.
Kelvin Berryman, a Wellington-based principal scientist at GNS Science, formerly the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, says Christchurch has not experienced a similar quake for about 140 years.
“These are very rare events, but they have to happen some time,” he says, referring to the geological strain building up from the gradual ongoing movement of the huge Canterbury Plains inland from Christchurch.
Liquefaction, when the earthquake squeezes water out of the ground creating silt-laden flooding, caused most of the residential losses, especially in areas with softer soils and high water tables.
Under liquefaction, buildings can slump and crack as the ground beneath subsides. In the worst hit Christchurch suburbs, parkland or other open space is destined to replace thousands of demolished homes for the foreseeable future.
Earlier this month, the government announced which of the remaining damaged houses it will buy and demolish, and which ones have been cleared for residents to repair and rebuild.
Don Mathias, whose house suffered major damage in September and “horrendous flooding and liquefaction” in February, welcomed the decision: after languishing in a state of uncertainty for almost a year, he’s relieved that the government will buy his home.
Almost 10,000 quakes have been logged in and around Christchurch since the 7.1 jolt in September 2010. While that seems a scarily high number to residents, Berryman says it’s a fairly standard pattern of decaying aftershocks following an event of this magnitude.
He believes once things settle down, Christchurch will be one of New Zealand’s safest places because the city has had its monster shake and the release of pressure means another big one is very unlikely.
That’s music to the ears of deputy mayor Button. “I think one of the big things for us is confidence,” she says.
“We need our own community to regain confidence in the city. We need the rest of the world to have confidence in us as well — as a place to visit, to work and as a place maybe to come and live. Christchurch is a wonderful city. It really is a beautiful place to live.”