What a 6.3 Earthquake Can Do to a City

Written By: The Planet D

I don’t know what we were expecting when we arrived in Christchurch.  We knew that a devastating earthquake rocked New Zealand less than a week ago but we are used to the media overblowing emergency situations. We flew in expecting the damage to be localized and that the rest of the town would be in working order and functioning.

We didn’t expect things to be as bad as the media portrayed them; we thought that they were probably showing the same damaged buildings in the epicenter over and over on the news.

What a 6.3 Earthquake Can Do to a City

6.3 earthquake gas station

In reality the city of Christchurch is indeed suffering. Much of the city is without power and many buildings outside the massively damaged Central Business District (CBD) have also been damaged or destroyed.

Houses, shops and eateries have collapsed and piles of bricks can be seen on almost every corner. Our hostel, The Old Country House on Gloucester is intact but is without water pressure, heat and hot water.

Most people in this area don’t have any power and have to queue in long lines for gas and propane.

Damage is Significant in and around the Central Business District

damage from the earthquake to Christchurch's Catholic Cathedral in City Centre
Catholic Cathedral from a Distance. Located in No Go Zone

Nothing is open.

We went for a walk thinking foolishly that we would be able to grab a bite to eat, do a little shopping and buy a SIM Card for our iPhone but the city is shut down.  Businesses and schools are closed and everyone is off work.

Other than supermarkets and corner stores every shop and restaurant is closed.  A lot of people are out driving around and riding their bicycles. Families are out together making the best out of a bad situation.

cone earthquake

New Zealanders seem to be the most resilient and optimistic people on earth. Residents are walking with smiles and saying hello as we pass by.

One family was working out front of their collapsed house with heavy machinery surrounded by helping friends and offered us food.  They were smiling and talking and we could tell that they were grateful to be alive.  They were seeing the positive instead of looking to the negative.

Central Business District

mud damage earthquake

The Central Business District (CBD) suffered the most significant damage in Christchurch and nobody is allowed in except for essential personnel and residents whose homes have been deemed safe.  There is great risk of more buildings collapsing and they don’t want anyone in the way of their recovery efforts.

Tanks drive through the streets and are parked at intersections leading to the CBD. Military and police guard these intersections making sure nobody sneaks into the area. If you are not an emergency worker or resident, you will be arrested if you enter.

We walked for hours around the surrounding area and could not believe the damage.  When we looked down the streets into the city centre, we wondered how a community goes about cleaning up something so catastrophic.

6.3 earthquake roof

Many streets have gaping cracks and holes and bridges have buckled in the centre.  After the earthquake liquid sand seeped up from under the ground causing a muddy mess.

This is known as liquefaction and it has come out of the ground both inside and out. Once the water recedes it leaves behind mounds of hard packed mud. We saw people shoveling out piles of the heavy dirt from showrooms, businesses, parking lots and front yards.

Recovery for Christchurch

store damage earthquake

If there is one city that will be able to get back on it’s feet, it will be Christchurch.   People are shoveling out tons of hard packed sand that seems as heavy as clay.

They pile heaps of mud onto the street for front end loaders to take away in the future.  It has only been a few days since the earthquake, and while things seem bleak, the people of Christchurch have a resolve to rebuild their lives.

“People have been worried for us coming to Christchurch, but we feel that why wouldn’t we come now? The earthquake already happened and they are in the rebuilding stages.  It is the perfect time to come and support this beautiful country. It’s still prime tourist season and the weather is gorgeous.”

We have heard reports hundreds of students and volunteers turning up in areas of the city with shovels and wheelbarrows to help dig out the tones of liquefaction from backyards and neighbours are helping each other through this terrible time.

The residents of Christchurch definitely have the right attitude.  They are optimistic and hopeful and ready to rebuild and recover.

As on man said to us “I was born and bred here. Some people may flee after this second earthquake, but most of us will stay.”

We arrived late at night to Christchurch, New Zealand not sure what to expect.  Usually, when going through immigration, the foreign passport holder line is packed with people. Tonight this was not the case.

The Aftermath and Aftershocks in Christchurch

Our half empty flight from Melbourne contained Native New Zealanders coming home to see their loved ones, emergency workers coming in to help with the relief efforts and us.

aftershocks in christchurch airport

Stepping out of the arrivals area, we were surprised to see several groups of people camped out in the terminal waiting for flights to leave the country.  We didn’t realize that people were still trying to leave town this long after the earthquake struck.

Our taxi driver told us that he read as many as 4000 people per day were leaving Christchurch.  We wondered how bad things must be if people are sleeping on the floor of the airport trying to flee the country.

City Centre

Driving into the city centre was an eerie feeling. Much of Christchurch is without power and as we looked out our window we could see the destruction of the devastating earthquake that struck just a few days earlier.

.aftershocks in christchurch building

Buildings are crumbled, roads are buckled and military forces guard the main emergency area that is off limits to anyone trying to enter.  We drove over what appeared to be a large speed bump, but then realized that it was a crack in the road that came apart during the deadly quake.

Christchurch is in a state of emergency.

As our driver stated, it looks like a war zone. Yellow emergency tape is strung across intersections with tanks and police standing guard to make sure nobody enters.  A curfew is in place and residents living within the area are not allowed out of their homes after dark.

As of 2 days ago when we left Bangkok, the death toll was 75 people with nearly 300 missing.  Today there are 113 of 223 missing. And emergency efforts are still in full force.  Large boxes arrived on the plane with us with stickers on them stating “For Christchurch Emergency Efforts.”

aftershocks in christchurch truck

We aren’t the type to run towards natural disasters or emergency zones.

Our trip to Christchurch was planned before the earthquake happened. We tried to make alternative plans to fly in at a later date or to a different part of the country, but almost everyone else was trying to do the same thing and we were forced to continue on with our plans.

In three days we will be continuing on from here to start our tour of the North and South Islands but for now, we are in the middle of a city trying to recover from a terrible tragedy.

Christchurch has hundreds of search and rescue specialists coming into the country and they have a very organized rescue operation in place.   We have not come with grand delusions of helping.  Emergency workers are in the destruction zone doing their job and if anyone tries to enter the area, they will be arrested.

People without skill can end up doing more harm than good.  No we are simply here because it was on our travel plans to come here.

Epicenter

Our original hotel was located right in the epicenter of the disaster zone that is off limits to everyone. Originally we read that it was being used to house emergency workers, but now we think that it must be evacuated as it is right next to The Grand Chancellor Hotel that is about to collapse.

We had to make alternative arrangements for another place to stay and found a hostel that is still open just beyond the no entry zone.  The Old Country House on Gloucester Street is open and has power.  We are so close to the emergency zone that our taxi driver had to find an alternative route to take us in as the road leading to it is sectioned off and guarded by military.

Aftershocks

He stated that the aftershocks are what is the most unsettling and it was only a few minutes after entering our room that we felt our first tremor.  We have never been in an earthquake before and this aftershock seemed quite large to us. Our room shook for a few seconds and we looked at each other and realized what just happened.

We were awakened two more times throughout the night by some milder aftershocks but soon the jet lag took it’s toll and we fell to sleep undisturbed for the rest of the night.

It is going to be a difficult time for the people of Christchurch.  Tourism is a large part of their economy and people are always scared off by a natural disaster.  Now that it has been struck twice in the same place, we wonder how long it will be before tourists make their way back and how many residents will seek out a new home.

It is now morning and we hear laughter in the hallway.  Today, we are going to venture out and have a look at the city, hook up our iPhone so our families can connect with us if they are worried and we are going to see if we can get in touch with some friends that live here.

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Leave a Comment

27 thoughts on “What a 6.3 Earthquake Can Do to a City”

  1. I’m just now stumbling upon your posts about post-quake NZ. Your photos really tell the story. But I also love hearing that the resilience of the kiwis is shining through, even after such a disaster. They’re such an amazing, inspiring people, and I know the city will bounce back from this. It will just take time. And you are completely right in saying that this disaster should in no way scare travelers away!

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  2. It is situations like this that I feel so utterly helpless. Besides throwing money at the cause, I cannot physically be there right now to help out.

    A little known fact is that Austin, TX is built on an inactive (currently) fault line.

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  3. It’s incredible to have a ‘non-media’ view of this. I think we need to be reminded a lot of the time that it’s not just the actual incident which needs coverage, but what’s happening afterwards. This is a humbling post and I am glad you had the courage to go explore and report on Christchurch.
    Mike @TravelDeckCDA

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  4. I feel so sorry for all those stuck in the tragedy of Christchurch.

    On the 27 of February the one-year anniversary of the 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile.

    It’s amazing to see the damage done from the 6.3 quake in Christchurch.
    One must remember that even though it was “only” a 6.3, it was also “only” 5km underground and that is what makes the mess bigger. If the 8.8 one had been that deep, NOTHING would have been left standing. And the timing of the NZ quake (at the busiest hour) couldn’t have been worse.
    Imagin that.
    My thoughts for u all.

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  5. Not good. These are the same photos and images we are seeing on the news. You missed the rescue video footage (or maybe they are replaying it now?) and action shots of pieces crumbling off buildings. I can’t believe you guys are there! Yesterday we heard a story about a man who survived the earthquake only to be killed by a boulder while trying to clear the road on his way home to his family. So, so sad. I’ve heard about the lines for petrol but hadn’t seen a line like your photo shows yet. The sad thing is, I’m not sure that this is going to be the last of the quakes for that region. Reconstruction is going to take a long time and it’s such a blow to the economy for the entire country. People are trying to stay positive, I’m sure but things are just so grim.

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  6. I love your opinion on visiting Canterbury:
    “People have been worried for us coming to Christchurch, but we feel that why wouldn’t we come now? The earthquake already happened and they are in the rebuilding stages. It is the perfect time to come and support this beautiful country. It’s still prime tourist season and the weather is gorgeous.”

    Indeed, it is time to support this country, especially the region of Canterbury. Tourism is an incredibly important industry for Christchurch and Canterbury. According to the Tourism Industry Association of New Zealand, tourism generated almost 10,000 jobs and almost NZ$800 million ($600 million) for Christchurch and the surrounding region in 2009. And now imagine how many people have lost their jobs or are going to because tourists don’t want to visit anymore, and how detrimental that will be to the region’s GDP.

    I think you’re doing the right thing. People always ask how to help from afar, and there are three ways: donate to the Earthquake appeal, visit the region to keep their tourism industry going, and promote the region so others visit, too.

    Enjoy your New Zealand trip. You’ll love NZ.

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  7. The pictures just show how badly Christchurch was hit – really moves my heart. I hope that the residents there stay strong and recover in no time. The country is still one that I would define as beautiful to my friends.

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  8. My heart goes out to the people in Christchurch. Like Gillian, I also live in an Earthquake zone and this really hit close to home. I always assumed that we would be safe if a 6.0 earthquake struck but that is not the case. There are so many factors. I am wishing Christchurck and NZ all the best.

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  9. Today is the one-year anniversary of the 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile.

    It’s amazing to see the damage done from the 6.3 quake in Christchurch.
    One must remember that even though it was “only” a 6.3, it was also “only” 5km underground (or less even) and that is what makes the mess bigger. If the 8.8 one had been that deep, NOTHING would have been left standing. And the timing of the NZ quake (at the busiest hour) couldn’t have been worse.

    By thoughts go out to my fellow kiwis!

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  10. PS – Just to avoid any confusion… The damage and suffering from any natural disaster is always shocking. My heart goes out to the people of Christchurch and I’m in no way trying to suggest that anyone should have done anything differently. I’m just amazed when people choose to stay on in disaster zones – because my first thought would be to find somewhere safer to set up base. PDQ.

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    • Abi – it’s okay, I totally understand where you’re coming from. I have dear friends in Christchurch and their homes suffered some damage. I do feel for the people there. The Kiwis and Aussies feel somehow related! But if it was me there, yes, I would pack up and move on. But then I have different feelings about the notions of ‘place’ and ‘home’. Terry and I left Sydney, my hometown, in 1998 and have lived overseas ever since and have never felt homesick enough to return. We feel at home in the world. We can live anywhere and we feel fond of wherever we build a life, however temporary. I certainly understand, respect and appreciate the attachments people feel to places. My husband and I are just different. We are all different. And that’s what makes the world so wonderful, I guess. That’s what gives us travellers like Deb and Dave. Like ourselves. You *you*.

      Great post, Deb and Dave! Moving images.

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  11. A really thought-provoking piece. I agree with your basic set-up (“We knew that a devastating earthquake rocked New Zealand less than a week ago but we are used to the media over blowing emergency situations. We flew in expecting the damage to be localized and that the rest of the town would be in working order and functioning. We didn’t expect things to be as bad as the media portrayed them; we thought that they were probably showing the same damaged buildings in the epicenter over and over on the news.”) – and so this post is all the more striking, because you really show us what is going on.
    Personally, living in an earthquake zone mystifies me. I will travel to them as the risk of an earthquake happening within any one week or two is small – but to live over a fault line? I read and reread your quote ( As on man said to us “I was born and bred here. Some people may flee after this second earthquake, but most of us will stay.”) and it really made an impression. I’m moved by the words but I would never agree. With almost the whole world to choose from, why deliberately live somewhere dangerous?

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    • Thanks Abi. It is difficult to understand I agree. But I if it is where you grew up or have family, home is difficult to leave. I am not sure what most people are feeling now, but I do think that many have left Christchurch at least for now.

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    • Abi, this is our home. All of NZ is sitting on one big fault line and Christchurch was considered to be relatively safe. No one could have predicted this disaster. Why stay? Because this is our home and a natural disaster is not something any of us can predict and plan his life accordingly. Look just at the past year and try to count the number of natural disasters and locations. If looking for a safe place you might find that the moon is the way to go…

      Many people left town to other areas around NZ to relax, and I can understand them. We can’t go as we have a business that must keep on going so we choose to stay, support each other and try to have a normal life in an abnormal situation.

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      • Hi Merav,

        I’m not sure if my PS got through in time. I wasn’t trying to say that this could have been predicted or that people should have done things differently. That doesn’t seem to be the case and, besides, it would be a rather cruel and unhelpful thing to say right now.
        I’ve grown up and lived in Western Europe where, luckily, cities aren’t destroyed by natural disasters (although plenty have been decimated by war.) I admire your courage and efforts to keep going now. I was just (clumsily) trying to express that for me, the concept of “home” wouldn’t be strong enough to make me stay in the long term.

  12. Living in California my whole life, I have experienced many earthquakes. They’re not fun and the devastation left behind is amazing. Rebuilding and healing will take place over time.

    It is great that you are there to see this first hand. The media usually does tend to exaggerate events like this but from your pictures it does not seem to be the case this time. Thanks for sharing. . . it is important that your pictures are seen!

    Be safe.

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    • Hi Cam, We leave Christchurch today, it will be interesting to come back in a month and see if there has been any progress in rebuilding. It is going to take a very long time.

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    • Ayngelina, yes there are definitely a lot of destroyed buildings and we can’t even get into the CBD to see the worst of the damage. I can’t imagine what it looks like in the city centre.

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  13. Wow, that is more terrible than I even imagined! Thanks for taking your camera to the scene and showing us all what’s truly going on in Christchurch at the moment. So sad.

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  14. I live in an earthquake zone and seeing this happen really makes me think. Seeing the destruction – and how quickly it can happen – is heartwrenching. I wish everyone there well and quick healing.

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  15. Brings back lots of memories as I was in a 7.2 earthquake and happened to be very near the epicenter so it looked like the end of the world where I was with fires, collapsed houses and roads, power lines down etc. I’d always enjoyed small earthquakes, but I don’t think there is anything more frightening than a big one.

    I’ve lived through hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, snowstorms, almost dying at sea twice ( once in the Bermuda triangle) but I think earthquakes are the worst because of the after shocks. They tend to go for months and can be very unsettling for those who have experienced a big one. It took me years to be able not to jump from sudden sounds like a truck going by. Of course, much depends on where you are as some lived through it and never felt it and many others died….they are fickle like that. My husband was at the world series and barely felt it.

    As enthusiastic and hardy as the people are, it will take many years to rebuild if there is significant damage. 10 years after the earthquake I experienced, guests could not believe so much rebuilding was still taking place in Santa Cruz and Watsonville ( which were badly hit in the SF quake of 89). They were stunned and said it looked like it just happened. Long after the world forgets about it the people work on healing.

    My prayers go out to the people of Christchurch. What is most important now to help? Do you know heartmath has a great emotional healing technique for earthquake survivors?

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    • Jeanne, I think you are absolutely right. It is going to take years to recover and as optimistic as people may be it is going to be a difficult time for everyone. And I think you are right, the aftershocks are scary. Even for us who weren’t here for the earthquake. When we feel one we get a little nervous. One of our friends that lives in Christchurch said that after the fact there are a lot of heart patients admitted into the hospital. I can believe it, if you are already suffering from heart disease, the stress of the aftershocks would be hard on the heart.

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