Rocked to the core and living on the edge

By Abby Gillies

Jackie Lilburn in the quagmire surrounding her home in Retreat Road, Avonside. Photo / David Alexander
Jackie Lilburn in the quagmire surrounding her home in Retreat Road, Avonside. Photo / David Alexander

As Christchurch residents grapple with the news that some of their homes will never be rebuilt, Herald on Sunday reporter and Cantabrian Abby Gillies visits her beloved former city for the first time since she was shaken awake in her flat by the terrifying September quake.

With clear blue skies above the Southern Alps, it feels like the start of another perfect Canterbury day as my flight drops into Christchurch.

There's no hint of the devastation below.

I'm nervous, not only about what I will see and whether there'll be a major aftershock while I am there, but about whether I will be tagged as a deserter by friends and colleagues.

When I moved to quake-free Auckland in October, Christchurch had been through what we thought was its doomsday on September 4. How wrong we all were.

February's deadly earthquake hit with a fierceness no one could predict, killing more than 180 and leaving countless more injured and traumatised.

That trauma is ongoing. Since September, the city that was my home for more than two years has lived through more than 7000 aftershocks, some of them causing damage on top of damage.

Hundreds of treasured historic buildings, commercial buildings and homes are ruined or condemned. It is a city where liquefaction is dreaded almost as much as the next aftershock.

A friend, accountant Claire English, has been working near Christchurch Airport for the past four months after quake damage forced the company she works for out of their central city building.

After the September earthquake, she tells me, people made the best of it and tackled difficult living conditions with a sense of fun. Friends held earthquake parties, with guests dressing as an item from a survival kit.

But after February's devastating quake, everything changed.

People stay in more, keep to themselves. Some of the famous Canterbury resilience has been worn down, she says. Emotions and tensions are high.

"There's an undercurrent and people do get a wee bit more upset about things."

With just a few city bars and restaurants left to go to, a night out means fighting the crowds.

"I work a lot," she says.

English, like many other of my fellow Cantabrians, has no animosity towards those who have left the city in search of a life where they, or their children, will no longer live in fear of the next shake.

The aftershocks, some of them big, still dominate everyday life, but Cantabrians are tired of talking about it. English says she's over it.

I head into the city and memories of the September earthquake when the sun rose on a place we no longer recognised. Crowds of dazed people wandered around a sunken and broken Manchester St, picking their way between debris and cars crushed by bricks. I remember the sound of the sirens, never ending.

Today, the same places are empty and deserted. The city is silent.

There are gaps where buildings used to be, buildings missing walls. Knox Presbyterian Church on Bealey Ave is an empty shell of arches.

The streets are lined with portaloos and silt from liquefaction has been shovelled into piles by the side of the road.

People walk slowly, heads down, swaddled in coats, hats and gloves against the morning chill. Back in Auckland, we grumbled this week when power was cut in Mt Eden for a couple of hours. We lit candles and used gas heaters keep warm. It was a bit like camping.

But I know how frustrating and desperate it must be for Cantabrians to regularly put up with the cold and dark. The novelty would soon wear off.

I return to my old house in Richmond's River Rd. That night in September, I was home alone, sleeping upstairs. The shaking woke me, forcing me to bolt out of bed and stand, shaking, in a doorway. I remember the sound, and the terror as I waited for the shaking to stop.

Afterwards, outside in the dark, I met some of my neighbours for the first time as we clustered together, frightened and waiting for the aftershocks.

For months afterwards, every time I heard a lawnmower, a loud noise or any kind of rumble, that fear was back.

My old house looks relatively undamaged from the outside. But many of my neighbourhood haunts are gone. My favourite bar, Christchurch Temperance Society, tucked in an alleyway, was demolished after the February quake. It was where I went with colleagues after work, made friends with the owner and had my Thai-themed 30th birthday last year.

My hairdresser's building has also been demolished. She runs her business from home.

In Tuam St across from my old workplace, The Star newspaper, I catch up with Nik Mavromatis at the Mediterranean Food Company. Most days I'd get coffee or lunch from him.

His building suffered huge damage in the quakes and although he's managed to keep the shop open, his staff of 14 have been cut to three since September.

Cracks show through the floor and driveway where sludge from liquefaction has oozed through, and Monday's aftershock brought down decorative brick arches in the courtyard.

"All the things that were buggered are buggered more. There's no money. I'm skint," Nik tells me.

He and partner Jess have talked about moving to Melbourne but they have invested all their money into the business and can't afford to go.

Even those who have soldiered on with a "stiff upper lip" are considering leaving, he says.

Photographer David Alexander and I head to the eastern suburb of Avonside, one of the worst-hit areas outside the CBD. Tradesmen are replacing Hiromi Wartmann's front window, which has been out for more than a week in freezing temperatures.

They've been using a chemical toilet since February and son Askr, 3, is terrified by every aftershock.

"Yesterday I started thinking, 'what's the point?' I've had enough," she says.

The city has been home to Hiromi and husband Jade for seven years. They had planned to stay, even after the two big quakes. But the June 13 earthquake (6.3 magnitude) caused them to reconsider. "Oh God, we don't want to deal with it anymore," she says.

A few streets away, retired taxi driver Pat Archilles, 66, and his wife, Dianne, 62, have also had a "gutsful".

The couple bought their dream retirement home beside the river 12 years ago, and planned to spend their time fishing and enjoying life.

Since last September, it has sunk 25cm. Every room in their house is cracked. Each night they watch TV on a tiny screen after the 42-inch plasma broke in the last quake.

For two days after this month's earthquake, they lined the toilet with a plastic bag and put the contents out for collection on rubbish day.

Thinking like pioneers is no longer a novelty, it's a necessity, he says.

"I'd like to stay but it's not the place it used to be. Every day, I used to go for a 2km walk around the river. It's a bit hard now because you don't know what you're stepping in."

This week, they'll go to Motueka to look at houses.

Dallington's Andrew Hughes and wife Jo are moving out of their "happiest home" when we arrive in the late afternoon. Andrew looks sad and resigned as he tells me his family's health has suffered, and talks of the emotional toll that has forced them to leave.

Since the February earthquake, they have jammed newspapers into the cracks to keep out the damp. Broken pipes meant sewage was flowing underneath the house. He, Jo and their sons started getting sick. When the June 13 quake hit, Andrew watched his wife cower on her hands and knees on the floor in terror.

"I saw what my own stubbornness was putting my sons and wife through and I thought 'we can't stay'."

The family are moving across town to a rental property in Shirley. He wonders if the rest of the country thinks Christchurch is "hogging" the news.

"People must be getting sick of us."

Wherever I go, there's little sign of anger. People are simply frustrated and resigned to the fact that their city might move and jolt for years to come.

When I get a sandwich for lunch, three people in the shop tell me to have a good day. They're happy to chat and pleased to have the business.

Retiree Margaret Woods, 74, is taking her Tibetan spaniel, Zoe, for a walk when we meet. Damage to her house is minor - some small cracks and a few broken jars of preserved fruit. Nothing on the scale of things.

But her nerves are frayed.

"Someone told me that today there was going to be another big one and I was up all night worrying," she says.

Mother-of-five Jackie Lilburne watches the sky each morning, also waiting for the next big one.

The sky on the morning of February 22 was purple in colour and she's fearful the "earthquake sky" will return.

Most days, she spends hours shovelling silt from her driveway and gumboots are pretty much the only footwear she wears these days.

Her children, aged from 5 to 15, have problems sleeping and their tempers are short. She is scared to take them to public places in case there is another quake.

Jackie's deck is slumped, the backyard covered in sand and the house is cracked and draughty.

Across town in Fendalton, many residents escaped major damage to their homes. But they, like everyone in Christchurch, struggle with earthquake anxiety. And they feel guilty their homes have been spared.

Resident Paula May says the emotional strain of the earthquake means people have little energy for anything else. "Anyone who's had a trauma, people would usually rally around but because it's such a major event, they don't have anything left."

Nearby, the Sheehan's brick fence is in perfect condition and, next door, a swing set and trampoline sit on a manicured lawn. The liquefaction has left this part of town alone.

Last weekend, Caroline Sheehan took son James, 13, to a rugby game in the eastern part of town and describes it as an "eye-opener".

"He couldn't believe how bad it was. I don't know how they're still going on, especially in the cold."

As I head home to Auckland, to stable ground, flushing toilets, warmer weather and no fear of a quake, I feel relieved. I've been waiting all day for an aftershock but Christchurch, for once, has a peaceful day.

But at 10.30 that night, a few hours after I get home, the city is jolted with a 5.3 magnitude quake. How much more, I wonder, can Christchurch take?

- Herald on Sunday

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