Life not as we know it in broken city

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“It’s massive, mate – and I’ve gotta go.” 

Those were the frantic words that came down the cellphone from a mate in Lyttelton, just over the hill from Christchurch, soon after last year’s deadly February 22 earthquake smashed the city. 

He’s never been prone to exaggeration so it was then – mere minutes after feeling a slight wobble in our Queenstown office – that the reality sank in of just how bad things were. 

It was somewhat amazing that I’d actually got through to him – services were limited and jammed straight after the quake. It was a relief to hear he was alive, if pretty rattled. 

A day later he called me back for a decent chinwag and it was touching that the first thing he did was apologise about returning my call so late. That was pretty unnecessary – I’d kind of figured he had other priorities. By then, he was in Twizel with colleagues, in the same clothes he’d been wearing the day before and wondering about the meaning of it all. 

“It’s freaky to think that everywhere people have died are places you go every other day,” he reflected.
When it happened, I was at work in Queenstown and a colleague first noticed the minor tremor of our building. The initial reaction was one of amusement. 

When it was still going 30 seconds later, a colleague experiencing an earthquake for the first time – and the only one looking slightly worried – wondered if we should all go outside. Her suggestion was pretty much chuckled at.
 
Most people got up and looked out the windows but that was about it. 

Jokes and relief kicked in at the realisation that it was nothing major at our end – and then you start to wonder where it was centred, hoping it’s deep underground and near somewhere sparsely populated like Fiordland. 

That’s when the dark reality started to emerge – media websites posted the briefest of updates about a major earthquake striking Canterbury, and that it might be worse than the big shake of September 4, 2010. 

Then the boss, with tears welling in his eyes and slumped at a table over his iPhone, said: “Christchurch has just been flattened.” 

His immediate thoughts were of his wife and kids in downtown Christchurch on a visit – they were okay and not among the 185 who died – but he didn’t find that out for an agonising half hour. 

Most people will have had their own similar reflections yesterday, a year on from the disaster that devastated the South Island’s biggest city. 

Queenstowners gave a lot at the time and it’s heartening to read Mountain Scene journalist Celia Crosbie’s report from Christchurch in today’s edition about the ongoing efforts of Queens­towners who are up there helping rebuild the place and re-house people. 

As for my mate, he’s run the gamut of emotions this past 12 months. Weeks after the quake, given he’s in insurance, he was happy to be busy pumping money into the place – all the while queuing to use portaloos, and couch surf at night because his downtown pad was off-limits. 

It was no place for a family, he said at the time, but for a single guy living on his wits, it was manageable and the sense of community was very strong. 

“People are talking to each other in the streets. You might start talking to someone outside a portaloo. If you need a lift, you stick your thumb out and a car will stop and pick you up almost instantly. 

“It’s an incredibly levelling experience – I know guys who are multi-millionaires and we’re all in the same boat.” 

A few months later, the novelty had worn off. He was over it, still couch surfing and looking to leave – “I don’t want to spend the next 10 years of my life in a construction zone.” 

But during a recent visit to Queenstown, he was quite keen to stay in the battered city, saying it was a very dynamic and changeable time in Christchurch – and he wanted to be part of it and its future.