Jarrod Booker: My year of living shakily

In the year since the Christchurch earthquake, Herald correspondent Jarrod Booker says the city's people have seen their entire lives change. Photo / File
In the year since the Christchurch earthquake, Herald correspondent Jarrod Booker says the city's people have seen their entire lives change. Photo / File

The big picture of Christchurch, the broken city, is all too familiar. But what of the details of everyday life as its people journey down the long, rough road to recovery?

There are precious moments living in Christchurch when you can forget all about earthquakes. You have to treasure them because they never last long.

When my partner and I were at the recent opening of a French film festival at one of the city's cinemas that is still operating, we thought we had found an ideal distraction.

We were both immersed in the story, Heat Wave, unfolding before us on the big screen until about halfway through the film a familiar rocking sensation suddenly shook us back to reality. A strong aftershock was shaking the whole cinema complex. We gripped our armrests and looked at each other nervously. So did the rest of the viewers.

After it subsided, a cinema staff member walked down the aisle across from us, his torchlight bouncing around in the darkness, to check the emergency exit.

It hit home just how vulnerable we were.

It later occurred to me how the barrage of thousands of quakes to strike Christchurch over the past 18 months had hardened us. If we hadn't been through so many terrifying moments, if this had been the first quake of its kind, we probably would have run in a panic from the cinema.

Instead, after exchanging a few anxious glances and tongue-in-cheek comments, we went back to watching the film. So did the rest of the viewers.

The whole experience has changed, but you carry on.

And that's the way life is for Christchurch people now: you take the hits the earthquakes deliver, and keep on going with as much normality as you can.

You can be sure if it's not an aftershock snapping you back to the reality in which you live, it will be something else; like the sight of broken buildings, quake images flashing up on your television or talk of quakes happening around you.

Of course there are the big things that people have to deal with: the loss of friends and loved ones, destroyed homes and businesses and disappearing livelihoods. The stresses facing those who don't know where they will live, or how they will start again. These are the things we see in the news almost every day.

But there are also all the small things that don't grab the headlines: the inconveniences that grind away at you day after day, and the quintessential Christchurch sights and experiences that made up the fabric of Christchurch but are now missing from our lives.

One of those things you miss the most is losing the heart of your city - a place we all used to have in common, no matter where we lived in in Christchurch.

As a result of the devastating February 22 quake that claimed 185 lives a year ago, much of the city centre bordered by Christchurch's four avenues is still closed off to the public. Many buildings are gone, leaving only large, vacant lots. Large cranes and machinery nibble away at doomed high-rise buildings.

Without many of their buildings, some central city streets that were unmistakable are now almost unrecognisable.

Driving through what you can of the central city, it's impossible not to feel some sadness as you try to recall what buildings once stood where, and those that you used to frequent.

Visiting the site of the former Canterbury Television (CTV) building, where 115 people died, is an eerie experience. Behind temporary fences covered with flowers and messages to those who died, is a patch of concrete where the six-storey building once stood.

When my mother visited from Timaru and saw the site for the first time, she immediately broke into tears. She didn't know anyone in the building, but you only have to imagine what it must have been like for those 115 people to get a lump in your throat.

These days, because of the cordoned-off central city "red zone", you can no longer wander through the city's Cathedral Square, sampling from the food carts and listening to an odd assortment of people ranting from their soapboxes.

You can no longer sit in the sun at a table outside one of the bars along Christchurch's popular hospitality district, the Oxford Terrace "Strip", and enjoy an after-work drink while looking over the meandering Avon River.

On the upside, it has meant a new lease of life for suburbs that were in some cases run down. Addington, a suburb south of the city, is now seen by some as a new city centre - trendy new bars and shops are popping up on Lincoln Rd, which runs through the suburb - as central city firms relocate to new office blocks there.

Of course getting around the city is often an exercise in frustration. Many of the roads are still peppered with humps and cracks where the earth has been forced up, sometimes making it feel like an off-road experience.

The result is that many vehicle owners are now encountering hefty bills to repair damage to their suspensions.

Roadworks are being carried out across the city, meaning constant delays and diversions. The traffic that used to be in the cordoned-off central city is now forced out into the suburbs, making for congestion like never before in many places.

Traffic queues you used to see only on the city's main arterial roads you now sometimes strike on suburban streets.

One of the things that strikes you most about the post-quake Christchurch is the amazing divide it has created between the city's east and west. It is now like two different worlds.

Eastern Christchurch bore the brunt of the damage in the big quakes - much of the homes, businesses, roads and infrastructure atop swampland or near rivers or the sea, has been devastated.

While there is some damage in the west, it is barely visible to the casual observer. The roads - in contrast to the east - are virtually unaffected.

For a resident of western Christchurch like myself, you can't help but feel guilty, when travelling into the east, that you got off so lightly. If I'm honest, I try to avoid the east altogether if I can, because the damage is still so vivid and depressing.

When you have some free time in Christchurch and are looking to make plans, there is always the process of going through what you can and can't do in the city.

When picking a restaurant, you are reminded that many of your favourite eating places no longer exist. My partner and I reminisce about a favourite restaurant, Sampan House, where we often used to eat together after we first met.

The thing you often hear from people who live outside Christchurch is: "I can't imagine what it must be like for you guys".

And they are right - you can see the images in the news and hear the people's stories as much as you like, but you have to live in it day after day to truly understand it.

How can you explain a way of life that swings from the mundane to pure terror in an instant, without any warning?

As we approach the first anniversary of the February disaster on Wednesday, in some ways I find myself dreading it. It's not easy being faced with such strong reminders of that terrible day - even for someone like myself who got off lightly.

Having spoken to many of those who lost loved ones a year ago, I can imagine how agonising it will be for them.

My own partner lost a number of friends and former colleagues who worked for Canterbury Television, and I know it will be hard on her.

Wednesday will be one of those days when it's impossible to forget about earthquakes.

We will all be hoping it is the beginning of the end for the quakes, and the start of a new era for our city.

- NZ Herald

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