Christchurch Seven and a Half Years after the Earthquake

Christchurch left me with a feeling of early spring, when it’s still chilly at dawn but the sun is definitely warm in the late morning.  When the snow crocus shoots appear, when the buds swell and the light green tiny leaves unfurl. Before the allergies, before the bugs emerge, way before the days start getting shorter.

There is something I like about being hurt, say, after a bad cold, stomach flu, or a painful breakup.


Snow crocuses in Christchurch Botanic Gardens

It’s not actually hurting that I like, but rather the day that comes – sooner rather than later – when I am still weak and raw, I move at a slower pace, and yet I can feel irreversible fresh shoots of joy and general okayness.  My favorite part though is not so much the feeling of new hope (“hope” can be a four letter word sometimes), but rather how gentle I often feel at such times.  In my humility, I perceive the human condition of those around me with greater empathy.  I don’t need to be reminded that we all sometimes hurt more than the eye can see: I know.  With my outer shell shed, love and compassion shine brighter through my translucent brand new skin.

On February 22, 2011 at 12:51 PM, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck Christchurch, destroying or badly damaging the city center and eastern suburbs, already compromised by the Canterbury Earthquake a few months earlier. One hundred and eighty-five people died, thousands were injured.  Seven and a half years later, despite definite green shoots abound, the city is still recovering.

Mary was studying in San Francisco in February of 2011.  A couple of years ago, also in San Francisco, she told me how she went overseas thinking she could always go back home if things didn’t work out.  Her family had to leave the house in a rush the day after (or was it the day of?) the earthquake, because it was no longer safe, and now she had no home to go back to.  Some days she would walk her little white dog in San Francisco and feel like that leash was the only string connecting her to anything.

The dog was with us when I first heard the story, so it was primarily about the dog, the way I heard it.  Now that Mary drove me back to my hostel through the central Christchurch, I could see how disorienting that would have been; still would be.  The entire blocks of old buildings had to be demolished.  The once familiar streets now transversed empty lots.  Faceless chickenwire where the facades used to be.


Christchurch. A demolished building photographed through chicken wire

I found the sight of the Christchurch Cathedral the most striking. How could it be that even this beautiful centrally located building was still in ruins seven and a half years later??

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Well, is seven and a half years that long though?  There would be months of mostly getting over the shock, making sure the survivors are safe, and rebuilding basic infrastructure.  Streets, electricity, plumbing.  Then there are assessments of what needs to be demolished.  Demolishing that.   Planning for blocks and blocks of new buildings: what will they be, what will they look like, who would pay for them.  In case of the cathedral, multiple powerful groups of people clashing and arguing.  Actual construction takes money, people, time.  Understandably more than seven and a half years of time.


One hundred and eighty-five white chairs to honor those who lost lives in the 22 February 2011 earthquake

Then there is this.  The loss of the human life was deeply tragic; one wonders if actions could have been taken to prevent it.  The buildings though… perhaps they needed to go to clear the ground for more sound structures to sprout, literally and figuratively.  Mary says, there was a strong feeling of the community coming together and offering help and support after the tragedy.

Among the ruins and empty lots, street and urban art emerges.  Coffee shops, museums, restaurants open in reinforced buildings and are shiny, new, and hopeful.  The new building are modern and sound.  The Transitional Cardboard Cathedral opened doors in 2015.  It’s sound enough to endure forces of nature for decades.


The Transitional Cardboard Cathedral.  The tubes under the plexiglass roof are made of cardboard.

Even as a short term visitor,  I feel warmth, welcome, and a slightly slower pace that comes with reemerging present and alive.  Sometimes the old structures need to perish for the light to shine on what had been long broken, for new creativity to flourish, for the people to reconnect.  And then the bugs crawl out, the days start getting longer, and we do it all over again, perhaps with more wisdom and kindness toward each other.


A view from the Christchurch Art Gallery, seismically sound and reinforced after the 2011 earthquake

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