This match a small step in Christchurch's revival


LETTER FROM CHRISTCHURCH:The reopening of the AMI stadium in the city is hugely significant as a symbol of some kind of normality returning, writes GERRY THORNLEY

YOU CAN read all about it, you can watch television or surf the internet, but only seeing is believing just how much Christchurch is still in demolition mode and still suffering the after-effects of the earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011.

Rubble, car parks and buildings still to be demolished are just the obvious visual effects. The homeless thousands – some living in cars, or caravans, or in the shells of their old homes – is more evidence, along with cracks in the edifices of houses. Tremors from after-shocks are a way of life – there was one of 4.2 in the middle of Monday night, the latest of over 10,000 of them since February 2011 – and the thousands of Irish émigrés who have sought work from the rebuilding process as well as local Cantabrians joke about it.

Viewed in the greater scheme of things, the rebuilding of an old rugby league stadium, where the All Blacks played Ireland today, in 100 days might be seen as an irrelevance, but as an expression of some sort of normality returning to Christchurch life, it is hugely significant.

Like everyone who was here that day, our first taxi driver, Barrie, who hails from Auckland, drove us to the Red Zone for the Irish squad’s visit there soon after arrival on Wednesday, can recall the day vividly.

“February 22nd, 2011. It struck at 12.51, at lunchtime on a typically busy Monday,” he begins. “February 22nd” is etched in Christchurch’s history the way 9/11 is in New York, the Red Zone being their Ground Zero.

“The February one came from the hills. It had a reported 3.25 vertical lift negative G, and a 1.8 negative G sideways shift at the same time, which is unbelievable, even though it was only a 6.8.”

But there had been residual damage from the 7.1 magnitude earthquake of six months before. The February 2011 quake could be felt throughout the south island and into the north island, and killed 187 people.

“A lot of those were in one building. A lot of students (many from overseas). Two buildings collapsed, including the Christchurch television building. I was in the city in a historic building. We were having lunch and we got out of the building fine but then another after-shock came. A lot of people were coming out of buildings and the veranda collapsed as well, and they got killed.”

The total cost to insurers of rebuilding has been estimated at NZ$20-30 billion, making it by far New Zealands costliest natural disaster, and the third-costliest earthquake (nominally) worldwide.

Yet the main task still facing the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) is to demolish buildings which are unsafe, and build 100,000 new homes.

Our taxi comes to a church ahead which is now part of a school. “Being wooden, perfect,” says Barrie, who says Christchurch had five real earthquakes from September 2010 to June last year. “A bit creaky inside but nothing wrong with it because it’s wooden. Wood is more flexible.”

The Cathedral and the new AMI stadium are distractions from the vexed debate regarding the homeless which has not been helped by a scandalous hike of up to 50 per cent in some locations on house rentals. The emigration, from rural areas and smaller towns to Australia from New Zealand in general, has been greatest from Christchurch.

Cantabrians are said to be a resilient lot and many helped each other in the days and weeks and months afterwards. “Even the university students set up a students army to clear away all the liquefaction,” says Barrie. “Thousands of students did that voluntarily and farmers helped with food and catering.”

Barrie had been having lunch in the Canterbury Club and had taken the recommended action of diving under a table. Our next taxi driver, Corbin O’Neill – Christchurch born and bred, whose Anglo-Irish dad hailed from Darlington – was not so lucky. The store front came off EB Games, where he was a manager, landed on him and cut off three of his toes. “Quite a few people helped get me out and to hospital.”

He passed out and remembers little more after and is now a full-time taxi driver, who will never prop for his local club again but, looking back, considers himself fortunate.

Perhaps fittingly in view of this rugby match, it’s reckoned the biggest influx has been Irish. The previous Monday night in Danny Doolans it appeared as if everyone there was a twentysomething Irishman or woman living in Australia, mostly Sydney.

Judging by another Irish pub, The Craic, the thousands here in Christchurch are mostly Irish male builders in their 20s who are working and living here. With “nothing at home” being a common refrain, most want to extend their visas. Some were amongst the workforce which met the squad, posing for photos and obtaining autographs.

Paudie Kenneally and his 19-year-old son David, from Ennis in Co Clare, are two of about 11 Irishmen and Englishmen with a company called Magees, which specialises in demolition. Kenneally snr came over five months ago after living for 23 years in London, though he hasn’t lost his accent.

“We are in a joint venture with March Construction, a Christchurch company. We do a form of demolition, cutting and craning, which is called deconstruction. This is our bread and butter in the UK. It’s a cleaner method, everything is processed – it’s not in a heap.”

He’s supposed to be returning in July, but will be obtaining a six-month extension and will see from there. “I love New Zealand. It’s a fantastic country, the people are fantastic. The scenery is second to none in the world. The food – eating out is the only way to eat here.”

“The whole of the country is here. There are thousands of young fellas all over the place. A lot of them are tradesmen from back home. The Celtic Tiger kicked their asses and they’re all out here now and there’s more coming.”

The insurance money will come through. In time, Christchurch will be looking for more qualified Irish people to employ and make this an even better city than it was before. Anyone who has ever been touched by Christchurch will sincerely hope that is the case, and if a rugby match helps in any way, all the better.

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