Rattled Christchurch marks first big quake's anniversary

Jim and Louise Deans' historic Home Bush Station homestead, destroyed during the earthquake in 2010. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jim and Louise Deans' historic Home Bush Station homestead, destroyed during the earthquake in 2010. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Christchurch paused and reflected today for the second anniversary of the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that sparked the seismic sequence that changed the city irreparably.

The previously unknown Greendale Fault beneath the Canterbury Plains unleashed its pent-up power to rock and shock sleeping Cantabrians at 4.35am two years ago.

Almost incredibly, it resulted in a zero death toll - largely attributed to the time it struck - and many residents thought they had escaped unscathed.

But as the days and months went by, the region kept on shaking, and culminated with the shallower 6.3-magnitude quake of February 22 last year that claimed 185 lives.

In the last two years, as the rattled city has tried to pick itself up and put itself back together again, the aftershocks have continued, and now total a staggering 11,923.

Hundreds of buildings have been demolished, billions of dollars in insurance and government cash has been paid to owners of quake-damaged houses and businesses.

The cordon around the CBD red zone has shrunk to just a few city blocks as the focus turns from demolition to reconstruction, and a royal commission of inquiry probes into building failures and how we can avoid such loss of life ever again.

The Government's emergency Christchurch Central Development Unit took just 100 days designing a blueprint for a greener, smaller CBD designed to breathe new life into the dying city and attract outside investment.

But many residents are still fighting the same fight two years on.

Retired couple Martin and Rae Francis moved into their brand new "dream retirement home" in Bexley 10 years ago.

For the last two years, they've put up with the cracked, sunken, cold and draughty house on the banks of the picturesque Avon River.

They're among a handful of residents still living in the severely damaged suburb of Bexley and want to stay put.

The Government, however, has red-zoned the entire subdivision, and the Francis' have until next April to find a new home and move out.

"Wherever we go we won't have the view and outlook we enjoy now. But we don't have a choice in the matter - we've got to go," said Mr Francis, 70, yesterday (Monday).

"We're not sure where we'll go. Rae won't go anywhere near the hills, beach, or out west because the traffic is so bad."

Private security firms patrol the almost abandoned Bexley streets at night to protect against the increasing bands of burglars prowling through red-zone homes.

Some of the Francis' neighbours still use portable toilets in their front yards because of the damaged sewage system.

Neighbour Aileen Trist says the past two years have been tough and "very stressful".

"Sometimes I wonder if it's all worth it," she said.

"It's hard to believe that our roads are worse than country tracks two years on. It's shocking. But you have to be optimistic, or else you're screwed."

Her views are shared by Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker who can barely believe it's been two years since what he calls "the greatest disaster to ever strike a New Zealand metropolitan centre".

While he says the rebuild is gathering pace, citing low unemployment figures, solid exports, billions being spent on building consents and infrastructure work, he accepts many residents may struggle to see the positives.

He described the process of battling the Earthquake Commission and insurance firms as "the worst form of psychological torture".

"Thousands in residential areas are still waiting for information that must seem will never come. While they might feel powerless and have had a damn difficult time, progress is taking place."

Christchurch City Council has no official plans to mark the anniversary today.

Most people will go about their business as usual, especially those living in the less-affected western side of the Garden City.

Mrs Trist, 64, said the east-west divide which has occurred over the last two years has been especially sad.

"We've become easties and westies and it feels like we're divided by a wall like in Berlin," she said.

"But we have to work together if we're going to make Christchurch a great place to live once again. If not for us, then our children."

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