New Zealand Earthquake, One Year On: Christchurch Stuck in Postquake 'Fog'

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Martin Hunter / Getty Images

A dump truck inside the cordoned-off red zone in the central business district of Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 21, 2012, ahead of the one-year anniversary of the city's big earthquake

A year after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake devastated the city of Christchurch, the central business district still looks like a ghost town. Behind fences that stretch block after block, giant office buildings without walls or windows wait to be demolished. Shops remain boarded up and houses sit empty, some bearing ominous red signs warning that the premises are "unsafe." In one restaurant, the tables are still set for the lunchtime rush, but a layer of dust has settled on the tops and the flowers in the vases have died. The only people on the streets are tourists snapping photos of the wreckage.

The hart-hit eastern suburbs of New Zealand's third largest city are in even worse shape, says Leanne Curtis of the Canterbury Communities' Earthquake Recovery Network, a citizens'-advocacy group. "It looks like a bomb site," she says. "It's very gray, very ugly. It's dirty. It's uncomfortable."

The earthquake that jolted Christchurch on Feb. 22, 2011, was the most catastrophic to strike New Zealand in 80 years, killing 184 people and causing an estimated $12.5 billion to $17 billion in damage. The six-story Canterbury Television building collapsed and the city's iconic Anglican cathedral, built in the late 19th century, was badly damaged. Rescue teams and donations flooded in from around the world until a far more devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan two weeks later relegated Christchurch to an afterthought.

Now, a year later, the city has an ambitious plan to rebuild the central business district in a smarter, more environmentally friendly way. After receiving tens of thousands of suggestions from city residents through a "share an idea" program, the city council drafted a plan for a more compact central business district, with a light-rail network, more green space and cycling paths, and low-rise, sustainable buildings. "We're going to build something fantastic, a very modern, futuristic city to live in," said Warwick Isaacs, general manager for operations at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), the government agency tasked with leading the rebuilding effort.

Trouble is, not everyone is confident in the ability of local leaders to deliver that city of the future. Demolitions in the central business district should be completed in the next 12 to 18 months, but there is no time frame for when the city will be fully built. In the mean time, nerves are fraying, largely due to a general feeling that the city council has lost its ability to govern properly. On Feb. 1, thousands of outraged residents protested the council's decision to give its chief executive a $57,000 raise at a time when many people are struggling to rebuild their lives. (The chief executive, Tony Marryatt, was forced to turn it down.) Adding to the drama, Prime Minister John Key described the council as "dysfunctional" due to constant infighting and a so-called Crown Observer was appointed to keep watch over the body, raising the possibility the councilors could eventually be replaced by government-appointed commissioners.

Curtis says the lack of progress in suburban areas has only made residents angrier. "People are living in cars and caravans because they're frightened to use up all their insurance money," she says. "The reality is in the eastern suburbs, where it was hit very badly, there have been very few repairs done and no rebuilds completed ... That's why people are struggling so much mentally because they've not yet been able to return to any sense of normality or routine. We just live in postearthquake fog."

Isaacs empathizes but stresses the enormity of the task at hand. Scientists and engineers have spent the past year assessing damaged structures across the city to determine if the land is suitable to be built on again. So far, CERA estimates that about 7,000 properties will have to be abandoned for good, meaning the homes will be demolished and residents will have to find new housing in an already tight market. Another 10,000 homes deemed to be on sturdy ground are also awaiting repairs or demolition. "Given these decisions that affect people's lives, the government wants to make sure it makes the right decisions, which is why it's taking some time," Isaacs says.

Constant aftershocks are also causing delays. Since a stronger but less deadly temblor rattled the city in September 2010, the Christchurch region has experienced an astounding 9,500 aftershocks, some of which have prompted fresh rounds of inspections and more structures being added to the demolition list. "It's not like they get smaller," Curtis says. "Most of us believe that we're in for another big one about every six months." The stress of continuing aftershocks, coupled with the uncertainty over whether homes can be rebuilt and businesses revived, has caused thousands of residents to move away for good.

Derek Thorp, a 38-year-old who owned a butcher shop in Christchurch, left the city for Shanghai in August. Thorp was fortunate he didn't lose his home or business in the quake, but his orders from restaurants dried up and his weekly income plummeted by 40%. He said with the loss of so many bars and restaurants, his social life dried up, too. "That part of your life is put on hold. Six months you can handle, but a year down the track?" said Thorp, who now works at a butcher shop in Shanghai that sells New Zealand meats. "At this point, [my partner and I] have no idea when we'll go back."

Life is slowly returning to margins of the city center, however. Sam Heaps is one of a handful of creative entrepreneurs who have opened new businesses in shipping containers, which are practical, safe and can be put just about anywhere. The 32-year-old started two ventures with quake-themed names: a bar called Revival, whose facade is decorated with parts of doors salvaged from demolition sites, and behind it, a hair salon called Felix Culpe, which is Latin for Happy Fault. "Everyone who wanted to leave has left. There's a great deal of spirit and heart in the city and people are sort of coming together," he says. "People want to move forward and get the city on its feet." The aftershocks don't seem to bother him, or his patrons. "When the bottles start rattling at 2 a.m., everyone lets out a big cheer and keeps on partying."