John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

NZ memories: 6.3 earthquake hits Christchurch

150 Years of Memories: In 2011, we knew we had become closer.

The Christchurch Cathedral after being badly damaged in February's quake. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Christchurch Cathedral after being badly damaged in February's quake. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Late February in New Zealand is warm and the weather is settled. At lunch hour on a weekday its city centres are thronged with office workers doing some shopping or eating sushi in the sun.

In Christchurch the best place for a lunch break was not so much the Square, always full of visitors taking photos of the Cathedral and enjoying the street life, but Cashel St's outdoor mall or the cafes on the Oxford Tce "strip", or anywhere along the grassy banks of the Avon.

February 22, 2011, was just such a summer day. As the clock ticked towards 1pm, some were still at lunch, others were meandering back to work. The city had its normal summer hum.

At 12.51 it happened. The jolt was immense. People picked themselves off the ground with dust and debris swirling. Dimly they could see that parapets had fallen on footpaths. Some people were not getting up.

In the dust and daze, people saw bits of buildings give way and stone and masonry topple. They knew they had to get out of there, and they had to know what had happened to loved ones.

Cellphone networks were instantly overloaded with calls not only within the city but, soon, from family in other parts of the country as the news spread. A Herald team of reporters reached the city by evening.

Staff on APN's Christchurch paper, The Star, set up a temporary office in the western suburbs and continued to bring out the paper with help from the Herald in Auckland.

The quake was much worse than any of the aftershocks that had shaken Christchurch since the magnitude 7 earthquake five months before. This one, geologists reported, was magnitude 6 but shallower than the original and closer to the city.

The ruptured fault under the Port Hills had generated ground forces unprecedented in New Zealand. Vertical acceleration 1.8 times gravity was far more than stone walls could survive.

People stumbling through the Square that day saw the distinctive Cathedral spire had gone, reduced to a pile of dusty rock.

Other colonial churches were in ruin, as was the Provincial Council Chamber and the popular Arts Centre precinct.

But those living in the eastern suburbs had a more urgent problem when they reached their homes. The shaking had caused ground water to come to the surface, covering paths and driveways in the stinking muck of "liquefaction".

Next day a student volunteer army arrived to help begin the task of shovelling it away.

For some people in the east, living close to the river or the estuary where the land had subsided towards the water, there was no way to save their buckled homes or rebuild on the same land. These "red zoned" households received a Government pay-out. Many in the "green zone" were left to argue with their insurers for repair or replacement.

Not much could be decided while the quakes continued. Two more magnitude 6 aftershocks hit the city in 2011.

But mid-way through 2012 a plan was drawn to give Christchurch a new heart.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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