Christchurch earthquake – the long road ahead

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There’s an eerie quiet beyond the barricades that acknowledges the moment when time stood still in Christchurch.
A gentle breeze moves through a broken building, flapping the ripped curtains inside while thigh-high grass and weeds replace once-manicured lawns. 

A giant boulder the size of a house still rests on part of the Sumner RSA, a year after it came crashing down from a cliff on February 22. 

Nearby, a croquet club, a church and a restaurant stand empty, overgrown and desolate – abandoned by the seaside community because they’re too unsafe to go back to. 

On the other side of the cordon, life as Cantabrians know it goes on. 

Cars negotiate the crooked, bumpy roads made narrower by hundreds of metres of huge shipping containers stacked two-high to protect people from rock fall. 

Leave the eastern suburbs – with its sadness and desperation dis­played on its residents’ faces and deserted homes – and you hit another kind of surreal world, the city centre. 

Haunting, hollow buildings stand ready for demolition, soon to become another temporary car park like so many that have already been created in the past 12 months. 

Policemen ride in and out of the cordon on bicycles while Territorial Army soldiers, manning the red zone, watch huge diggers and cranes turn buildings to dust. 

“Is that the Cathedral?” a woman asks her friend, peering through the cordon fence up to the Square’s broken landmark. 

“Yes. Can you believe it? Have you seen the Catholic Basilica?” the friend replies. 

“No, I don’t want to yet.” 

There are plenty of residents who share the same view – they’re not ready to see the extent of the devastation.
 
Curious others walk or cycle around the red zone barrier fences, taking in the deafening silence where there was once a vibrant CBD buzz. 

Not all has stopped here.

Nine months after the quake, green shoots of life emerged down the old Cashel Mall, with businesses turning shipping containers into trendy boutique-like stores. 

Last weekend, people packed out the city’s favourite department store, Ballantynes, for its first annual summer sale since the quake. It’s the small things like shopping and buying a coffee in a restored, familiar place that put smiles on faces. 

Queenstown’s own civil defence boss Brenden Winder doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked about the sheer size of the job ahead to rebuild the broken city. 

“To rebuild Canterbury, it might be done in my lifetime. It probably won’t be. There’s so much to do. There will be people here working on rebuilding Canterbury for their whole career.” 

Immediately after the quake hit, Winder headed to Christchurch to work as an intelligence manager for Civil Defence. After months of commuting back and forth to Queenstown, he took up a position at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA). 

Winder’s presently the CBD’s red zone cordon and access boss, managing 22,000 accredited people. He’ll soon pick up additional roles as residential relocations programme manager, looking after 7000 red zone houses. 

“I know how big the mountain is – it’s big. You just get on with it. It’s the whole eating the elephant thing – one bite at a time.” 

There’s a hive of activity in the crammed open-plan floor CERA headquarters in the HSBC tower on Worcester Street. And it’s not just because of a VIP Kiwi billionaire investor that Winder’s just about to meet. 

“There’re lots of really dedicated, capable people here,” Winder explains. 

“It’s not unusual for people to be here at 11 o’clock at night or at the weekends. It’s a fascinating and intense place to work.”

A hundred metres down the road from Winder, Queenstown structural engineer John Trowsdale (pictured, above) is managing the painstaking task of returning the historic Arts Centre to its former glory. 

It’s a slow process, but things are already happening behind the security fencing. There are special­­­ist Oamaru stonemasons onsite making replica bricks to fill the gaps, once strengthening work is complete. 

Where possible, stonework that fell in the quake has been numbered and categorised to be put back into its original position, Trowsdale explains. 

“There are 21 category one heritage buildings here comprising what could be regarded as the most significant collection of Gothic architecture in the southern hemisphere,” he says. 

“At the moment we’re looking at everything we can do to save all the buildings. We have a minimum acceptable strength that we want to bring all of the buildings across the site up to.” 

Shifting to Christchurch late last year, he’s now joined by five other Holmes Consulting Group engineers dedicated to fixing the Arts Centre, which will reportedly cost $240 million.
 
Immediate priorities are the clock tower and Great Hall – two of the oldest buildings onsite. 

“With regards to the future rebuild of Christchurch it’s a very significant site and it’s certainly valued by a lot of Cantabrians.” 

Trowsdale – a born and bred Cantabrian himself – admits he has a strong attachment to the historic buildings.
 
“Whilst it’s really hard work and it’s incredibly complex from an engineering point of view, there’s a huge level of satisfaction that we’ll be able to get from these buildings when we walk away at the end, knowing that I’ve helped play a reasonable role in getting these back up and running.” 

Trowsdale knows the road ahead is long but prefers to concentrate on taking one step at a time. 

“I don’t think about the problem in its entirety. I know a number of people will try, but it’s too overwhelming at times.” 

A year ago today, Trowsdale was working round the clock with the Urban Search and Rescue team, desperately trying to save people trapped in the collapsed CTV building. 

He’s resolute as he reflects on the year gone by: “A lot’s happened. And a lot will continue to happen, which I think is a really positive thing.”