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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.