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New Zealand’s Second City Rises Again After Earthquake Disaster

A workman operates a mobile crane at the site of a demolished building in central Christchurch, New Zealand, as the clean up from the February 11 earthquake takes place (File Photo - September 7, 2011).

Officials in New Zealand’s second largest city say it will cost more than $15 billion to rebuild parts of Christchurch that were devastated earlier this year by an earthquake. In February, a magnitude 6.3 quake killed 181 people and left much of the city center in ruins. Thousands of homes have been left uninhabitable.

Damage in Christchurch

The epicenter of one of New Zealand’s worst natural disasters was close to the Christchurch suburb, Lyttleton, 12 kilometers from the city center.

More than seven months after the February 22 quake, efforts to rebuild the city are progressing, albeit slowly.

Thousands of residents have left the city and many of those who remain, such as Lisa Brignall, a migrant from South Africa, are feeling the strain, as aftershocks continue to shake the ground.

Coping with hardship

“It takes its toll," she said. "My husband has even considered, you know, leaving for the sake of our sanity. Yes. It’s hard.”

“So, were are going in through the study door which is pulled away from the house a wee [small] bit and there is a big bucket here to collect the rainwater. There is a big hole in the roof there,” said Christchurch resident Siobhan Grimshaw, when she describes the wrecked shell of her home in the city’s Mount Pleasant district. Grimshaw and her husband, David, are among thousands of residents waiting for their ruined homes to be rebuilt, as insurance companies continue the mammoth task of assessing a vast number of damaged properties.

“One, we haven’t really got a choice because all our money is invested into our house, so if we walk away we would be bankrupt," she added. "Two, I love New Zealand, I love living here. I love Christchurch. I love the community. The people are just amazing.

“I think we’ll end up with a better house at the end of the day, even though we have spent a lot of money getting to where we are," continued Grimshaw. "Yeah, I’m keen to get back and let’s hope we can do it sooner rather than a lot later.”

"I definitely thought I was going to die a few times," she said. "With the first big earthquake in September that was really terrifying. "We’d obviously never been in an earthquake before and, in February, I saw the city center buildings come down and the clouds of dust, and a lot of injured people.”

Rebuilding plans

City officials have announced plans to rebuild its central business district as a low-rise precinct dominated by parkland.

Buildings will be restricted to a maximum of seven stories and constructed to rigorous standards, to avoid the damage and loss of life inflicted by the earthquake that tore through Christchurch in February.

Mayor Bob Parker says, in the next 20 years, the city will emerge as a safe, sustainable, low-rise garden city.

“The energy that had been stored in the Earth has largely dissipated," he said. "In many ways, we emerge one of the safest areas now in New Zealand and indeed around the earthquake ring of fire around the Pacific, to live in because we will be safer. We will be built to a very high level of seismic sustainability. And, we will be in an area which to all intents and purposes has fired its bullets. And, we should expect gradually a much more relaxed seismic environment for hundreds of years into the future.”

Already 6,000 homes have been abandoned and are considered to be on land that is too unstable for them to be rebuilt. Thousands of other properties have yet to be fully assessed and they, too, could be condemned.

Then, there is the damage to roads, as well as sewers and water systems.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority was set up by the New Zealand government to lead recovery work.

City's future

Roger Sutton, the chief executive of Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, Christchurch, New Zealand, September 29, 2011.
Roger Sutton, the chief executive of Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, Christchurch, New Zealand, September 29, 2011.

Its chief executive, Roger Sutton, is optimistic about the city’s future.

“A lot of cities in the world do not have good quality earthquake insurance. Christchurch, in general, most people have insurance, most people’s land is insured as well," said Sutton. "So, a lot of money is going to flow into the city through the insurance and re-insurance industry and that is going to make a very big difference.

The scale of it, you know, NZ$20 billion in damage that is about 10 percent of New Zealand’s GDP [gross domestic product]," continued Sutton. "So in terms of natural disasters this is getting right up there. I think the Japanese earthquake was one or two percent of their GDP. This is 10 percent of our GDP. So without that very high level of insurance we have got this would be a much, much bleaker city. The outlook would be much bleaker.”

Christchurch is being transformed and the skyline is slowly changing. But, for the displaced people here, change cannot come soon enough.