In Quake-Hit Christchurch, All Eyes Are on the All Blacks

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Greg Wood / AFP / Getty Images

Massive reconstruction work estimated to cost more than $11.5 billion is under way after February's earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand

One more win. That's all it would take to get New Zealand smiling again.

This weekend, New Zealand meets France in the final of the Rugby World Cup. Over 60,000 fans will be at Auckland's Eden Park to watch the gladiatorial bout between the northern and southern hemispheres, and millions of people around the globe will watch the match on television. The stakes are high: it's been 24 years since New Zealand's squad, the All Blacks, won the title. A win would also be a much needed morale boost for the residents of Christchurch, a city rocked by not one but two earthquakes in just over a year.

The first quake hit Christchurch on Sept. 4, 2010, toppling buildings in the central business district and cutting power to the city. The second quake struck on Feb. 22, 2011, leveling already damaged structures and killing 180 people. "I could hear shouts and screams," remembers the city's mayor, Bob Parker. "It was a shocking scene," he adds. "It will be something I will never forget."

Eight months later, the city is still getting back on its feet. In August, Christchurch still felt like a war zone — eerily quiet but for the buzz of bulldozers in the distance. High fences cordoned off the rectangular perimeter of the city center, keeping the public at a distance. Those fences will soon disappear, allowing locals to enter their partially reconfigured city. Parker says he hopes to have the demolition work finished by April 2012 and that construction should start soon after.

Large swaths of the suburbs, meanwhile, have been left untouched, pending decisions by inspectors and insurers. Avonside, a quaint suburb not far from the central business district, was one of the hardest hit; houses there still sit empty. Part of it will be demolished, and it is understood that 90% of the houses in nearby Bexley are also on the demolition list.

Residents have spent the year trying to cope with the sudden loss of their homes. The city of Christchurch was split into four residential zones, with the red zone classified as a demolition zone. An estimated total of 114,000 houses were damaged, 5,000 of which are set for demolition. The Earthquake Commission has received in excess of 345,000 claims, one of the highest numbers in the world ever handled by a single insurer.

Evan Smith, a business-support analyst who resided in Richmond, has relocated to a small hotel room known as a sleep-out. He now pays about $160 a week for accommodation. Insurance covered part of his new living arrangements, but he never expected to be out so long. "I thought that I would have been at the sleep-out for a few weeks but have been there for months now," he says. Like many, he considered leaving the city altogether but ultimately decided to stay. "The kids didn't want to leave their friends," he says. And he adds, "At the end of the day, though, we love Christchurch."

A Royal Commission inquiry into the quakes will dissect the cause of building collapses and the loss of lives. Insurance costs are expected to balloon to $12 million, making it one of the most expensive natural disasters in history. British-owned Ansvar Insurance was the first company to pull out of the country. Ansvar was the largest insurer of churches and heritage buildings in New Zealand and incurred losses of close to $560 million.

Clearly, a World Cup title won't solve Christchurch's woes. But it sure would mean a lot to its weary, rugby-mad residents. Former All Black Frank Bunce is confident that this is the year. "We have good players who are in form and a nice depth," he says. "There is also the home-ground advantage, with so much pressure, but it will be a positive pressure."

"It will be nice if we win it," he adds. "We can then take a deep breath, exhale and then party." After a year of hardship and uncertainty, that may be just what Christchurch needs.