Christchurch grapples with 'new normal' of tremors and power cuts

Thu, Feb 23, 2012, 00:00

Locals are finding the rebuilding of their city – and lives – is taking far too long, writes KEITH LYNCHin Christchurch

A YEAR on and the earthquakes just keep on coming. Yesterday was the anniversary of one of the worst disasters in the history of New Zealand, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that claimed the lives of 185 people in Christchurch.

Twelve months may have passed, but there has been only sporadic let-up for the country’s second-largest city.

The aftershocks are not as regular, but they continue. The region has endured almost 10,000 earthquakes since the 7.1-magnitude tremor on September 4th, 2010, the seismic event that triggered the devastating February 22nd aftershock.

The locals are frustrated. This year has seen unprecedented discontent with the local authority after its chief executive Tony Marryatt was, despite the economic downturn, awarded a NZ$68,000 (€42,620) pay rise late last year.

Earlier this month about 4,000 people, many first-time protesters, turned out to demonstrate against the city council, despite Marryatt eventually turning down the pay rise after weeks of significant political and public pressure.

The city’s mayor, Bob Parker, who was re-elected on the back of his post-earthquake work, has seen his popularity plummet.

People are frustrated and angry. In January, the city’s Anglican Bishop, Victoria Matthews, wrote: “The present climate of discord in Christchurch is doing more damage to our beloved community than any earthquakes that have ravaged our city over the past 16 months.

“At this time there is a community-wide angst and traumatic stress that will not go away overnight.”

Many locals, including Carlow man Darren Maher (39) are in limbo. Maher has lived for nine years in Christchurch, where he started a plumbing business.

His work is thriving but his quake-damaged home has to come down. Maher, his Canadian wife and their four children have been renting a property next door. But earlier this month they were told it was to be sold and they have to find somewhere else to live. “I feel like we’re stuck in a time warp. We don’t seem to be moving anywhere. We’re in the same position we were this time last year. We moved into this house after the quake. We’re still here. The house is still standing next door. Nothing much has changed.’’

He received an insurance payout on the house but it would not cover a comparable home nearby. His land may not be suitable for a rebuild. If it is, it may be too expensive to build to new safety codes. Like so many, he is unsure if he wants to stay. “It depends what day you ask me.’’

After February 22nd, entire suburbs were destroyed, houses warped and land ruined by wet grey silt pushed to the surface by the force of the earthquake.

People were forced to live in cars and caravans, while thousands of others gave up and left the city. According to Statistics New Zealand, the city’s population fell by 8,900 in the year to the end of June 2011.

Life went on, and those who stayed, by choice or necessity, got used to what locals dubbed the “new normal’’, a life where tremors, power outages and leaky, cracked homes are common.

But the quakes did not stop. In April a violent 5.3-magnitude tremor hit, knocking out power in 20,000 homes. More aftershocks struck in June, including another 6.3-magnitude which led to further damage and more liquefaction.

Winter brought further unexpected burdens when the two heaviest snowfalls for nearly 20 years paralysed much of the city.

After the Rugby World Cup, the city enjoyed a short break from the seismic hammering. Then, two days before Christmas, a magnitude-6.0 quake and two greater than magnitude 5.0 smashed Christchurch.

The repair and rebuild bill stands at about $30 billion (€18.8 billion).

The Rugby World Cup was expected to have provided a much needed boost after the September 2011 earthquake. But instead the Government unsurprisingly decided to take the games away from the city, contributing to an overall drop in tourism numbers of about 25 per cent.

The National Bank estimated that the economy of the surrounding province of Canterbury shrank by 0.8 per cent in the year to September 2011. The rest of the country saw economic growth of 0.6 per cent.

In July, the Government divided the city into red, green, orange and white zones, with an offer to buy red-zone houses at rateable value. More than 6,500 homes will be wiped off the map, their land unsuitable for rebuilding. But there is hope.

A new $2 billion plan for a new Christchurch city centre – large swathes of which are still off limits as demolition continues – has won widespread support.

In October, a new shopping district dubbed the Re:START village project was set up in City Mall, a street where four people died on February 22nd. The temporary mall, made out of colourful shipping containers, has attracted thousands of shoppers and brought people back to the quake-ravaged central business district. Temporary bars, coffee shops and restaurants have sprung up in unexpected places. And a temporary 17,000-seater rugby stadium is being built to host the Crusaders’ home games for the Super 15 season. It will also play host to the All Blacks and Ireland in June.

The redevelopment work has brought opportunities for the construction industry. Cork engineer Peter O’Brien (25) arrived in Christchurch in October. He is now surveying earthquake-damaged buildings in the city. “Personally I’m loving it here because I’ve an opportunity to work. I plan to stay as long as I’ve work.”

CHRISTCHURCH EARTHQUAKE: THE IRISH VICTIMS

OWEN McKENNA (40), from Co Monaghan, died when a building collapsed on his car.

He moved to New Zealand about six years ago with his wife, who was born there. They had two children, Grace (6) and Tadgh (5).

Mr McKenna wanted to be buried in Ireland and his body was returned to his mother, Teresa McKenna, in Co Monaghan.

JOHN OCONNOR (40), died in the PGC building, along with 17 others. Rescuers took two weeks to recover his body. He was from Abbeydorney in Co Kerry and met his New Zealand-born wife, Sarah, in London.

They moved to Christchurch in September 2010 with their two-year-old son, Dan. His wife gave birth to another child in May.

JULIE WONG (37), moved to Christchurch from Northern Ireland five years ago.

She worked in the PGC building as an accountant. She is survived by her parents, husband David and four-year-old son, Ethan.

Ms Wong was born in Lisburn, Co Antrim, and had dual citizenship of the United Kingdom and New Zealand.