Amanda Cropp: Port-a-loos, arson and watering cans

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Christchurch journalist and mother Amanda Cropp has spent the past two years adjusting to the strangeness of post-earthquake life in the city. As another anniversary passes, she describes the good, the bad and the downright bizarre

Amanda Cropp has managed to find some positives in the aftermath of the 2011 quake. Photo / Martin Hunter
Amanda Cropp has managed to find some positives in the aftermath of the 2011 quake. Photo / Martin Hunter

I recently arrived home to discover my husband soaking the carpets with a watering can.

Just another of those weird post-quake experiences to add to the many I've had in the two years since the big February 22 shake.

Thousands of aftershocks moved the piles under our house so much the carpet had stretched to the point where wrinkles were becoming a trip hazard. As I squelched around the living room my husband explained that an internet website recommended watering a wool carpet to shrink it back into shape. It worked, even if the place smelt like a woolshed full of wet sheep for a couple of days.

(Unfortunately it did nothing to remedy the bleach mark caused by a bottle of vodka broken in the quake. I never drink the stuff and, having seen what it does to carpet, not even a sharp aftershock will tempt me to start.)

There is also something very weird about watching a fleet of monster machines gobbling up my city.

A few months ago I stood on the footpath near the trendy Re:Start container mall watching with appalled fascination as a huge digger snacked on the third floor of an office block like some hungry mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Two blocks away the Farmers department store and car park were just as efficiently torn apart, then fed through a rubble-cruncher that spat out the bits into a four metre high mountain of waste.

With 70 per cent of the CBD scheduled for demolition and 950 buildings gone already, the scale of destruction is overwhelming.

Last summer, visitors to the Botanic Gardens were invited to write wishes on scraps of paper tied around a tree trunk. Along with "I want an ice cream" was the forlorn desire for "a new city in a week". Totally unrealistic, but I completely understood the sentiment.

Lonely Planet voted Christchurch one of its top 10 cities globally for 2013. It may one day deserve the accolade, just not yet. For all the hype politicians spout about the rebuild, the growing number of empty lots makes the CBD a dirty, depressing, disorientating place.

In the hard-hit eastern suburbs the pace of progress is even more glacial. Arsonists get their kicks torching abandoned red zone homes and a plague of graffiti covers houses, factories, churches, trees in parks, rocks on the beach, and the New Brighton war memorial. With so much mess around them it seems vandals have lost what little respect they had for the property of others.

In my seaside neighbourhood hundreds of shipping containers installed as rock-fall protection are a constant reminder of our ongoing boulder problem - a few weeks ago a 40-tonner worked loose by the quakes plunged down a hillside into a red-stickered property.

As work ramps up on 895 kilometres of damaged roads, travelling across town is a time-consuming nightmare of closed streets and inconvenient detours. It cost insurers thousands of dollars to fix our car after road workers lost control of a high pressure hose that broke a window, saturating the interior.

Punctures caused by demolition rubbish are a daily hazard and mechanics are doing a brisk trade replacing shock absorbers wrecked by bumpy roads.

We were warned it would be a 10 to 20-year process to realise the ambitious new blueprint for the city, and the truth of that is finally beginning to sink in.

Construction is certainly starting to replace destruction in the CBD and Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee crows that where there were once 2500 workers pulling down buildings there are now 1098 doing the complete opposite.

More hotels are slowly coming back on stream and new cafes, bars and restaurants are constantly opening up to replace the hundreds that closed in the CBD. In time the temporary hospitality premises that popped up in the most unlikely places will disappear and we will miss them.

Down Bridle Path Road in the Heathcote Valley, where the epicentre of the February quake was located, Upshot Coffee brews "caffeine with kick" in a tiny shipping container beside a riding school, with customers seated on the concrete apron of a former cowshed.

The Pallet Pavilion, an outdoor event centre built entirely of wooden pallets painted electric blue, occupies the former Crown Plaza hotel site. When I drop by a fellow visitor stamps his foot and tells his daughter he used to eat at a Japanese restaurant "right about here!" Personally I think his aim is off and he's stamping in the ladies loos.

I hope the Cod Squad mobile fish and chip shop spotted on the edge of the cordon decides to park up outside the new cardboard transitional cathedral, already hailed as our next big tourist attraction before it's even finished.

It's ironic that in a central city with so few shops, vacant land is quickly converted into pay car parking and the penalties for overstaying are as high as ever.

I can't get used to parking wardens patrolling light industrial areas where car parks are now at a premium following the influx of businesses and professionals (1000 lawyers and accountants for starters) forced to quit the CBD.

By all accounts those central city office block refugees yearn for the days when they spent their lunch breaks sunning themselves in Victoria Square or browsing the boutiques. It's not much chop taking a lunch time stroll down boring arterial routes roaring with heavy traffic.

It's also odd living in a city where so many residents are shifting house, either temporarily for repairs, or permanently because their properties are among the 8000 in the condemned red zone.

My family will join the exodus and it is unsettling not knowing know when our home will be fixed, how long it will take or where we will live. Rents are astronomical and I was quoted $220 plus gst a night for short term accommodation in a property that would have fetched $300 to $400 a week pre-quakes.

Still, we are infinitely better off than those living a gypsy existence traipsing from one grotty unaffordable rental to the next, bunking down with family, toughing it out in garages, or facing another unhealthy winter in damp, mouldy, leaky homes awaiting repair.

As for EQC, I congratulate the wag who erected a billboard saying "ECQ Wear hair to hilp."

For my husband's birthday I ordered a T-shirt custom-printed with the slogan "FEC is a rude word in Ireland, in Christchurch it stands for Frustration with EQC."

It took more than two years for EQC to forward our file to Fletcher EQR which project manages house repairs under the $100,000 cap. In that time I made dozens of phone calls to the EQC hotline, never speaking to the same person twice. Gareth, Jane, Emma, Geoff et al always stuck rigidly to the script and the conversation inevitably ended with the dreaded words "there is no timeframe."

"Helping others is part of the Christchurch ethos now and I think the city is a friendlier place, less cliquey.

There's a much greater spirit of collaboration in the business sector and competitors even share premises on occasion.For nine months EQC told us it was verifying that we were insured, a process my husband accomplished in a two-minute phone call to our insurance company.

When we laid an official complaint (one of more than 11,000 from disgruntled EQC customers) it was refreshing to have someone in the complaints department openly admit the whole system was a complete shambles. So how come CEO Ian Simpson received a $70,000 pay rise last year?

The rest of New Zealand is probably fed up with moans from Christchurch about EQC's shortcomings. But you'll find out all about them soon enough if your city suffers a major a natural disaster, because without a major overhaul of EQC systems and management, nothing will change.

Insurance companies have a lot to answer for too. Getting money out of insurers in the garden city is often akin to climbing Mt Everest: a long and stressful process which leaves you totally knackered.

Promises about providing peace of mind when the liquefaction hits the fan sound pretty empty to Christchurch ginger group Insurance Watch: 80 per cent of the 1400 respondents to its pre-Christmas survey experienced delays in settling their claims.

The quakes also shook up the city politically, turning normally staid citizens into veteran protesters.

Over the past two years they have taken to the streets to rail against EQC, overly generous payments to the city manager, plans to deconstruct the Anglican cathedral, the firing of Environment Canterbury's elected representatives and the restructuring of education.

The latter's breathtakingly incompetent handling by Education Minister Hekia Parata and her advisers inspired some very creative placards. One saying "Beware Parana" with a drawing of a small fish typifies the depth of feeling about proposals to merge and close schools that helped communities through a very stressful period.

Why the Government couldn't have waited until it had accurate census data on which to base its decisions defies belief. That raises suspicions Christchurch is a convenient testing ground for more fundamental policy changes, such as the closure of intermediates (almost a third of Christchurch intermediates are scheduled to shut) and the creation of "super schools."

Shift-schooling, introduced as an emergency measure when so many Christchurch schools were wrecked, will be permissible in all schools under changes to the Education Act.

It might sound like an attractive option for over-subscribed Auckland schools, but as the parent of two sons who arrived home at 7pm each night from the late shift, I assure you it played hell with family routines and extracurricular activities. As a temporary fix it was the best available option; long term I'd never consider it.


The trick to coping with all the quake-related upheavals is to focus on the positives, and luckily there are plenty of them. I grieve the loss of favourite heritage buildings and console myself that the quakes have rid us of some real "uglies:" the BNZ bank in Cathedral square, the late Hotel Grand Chancellor, the old central railway station (despite its Historic Places Trust designation), and the seven-storey apartment block beside the estuary that stood out like a skyscraper on a Pacific atoll.

Designs for new buildings tend to be of the uninspiring glass shoebox variety, giving us all the more reason to celebrate the re-opening of the wonderful Spanish mission style shops in New Regent St next month.

Two major supermarkets that served my area have not been rebuilt. In one case replacement is conditional on the installation of expensive traffic lights that will cause more backups on a main road already suffering big traffic jams because of a bridge rebuild. On the other hand we have gained a colourful farmers' market.

The plot where the Sumner community centre used to stand had deteriorated into a weedy sandpit until residents transformed it into an attractive village green with a skateboard ramp. Visitors frequently pose for photos beside a nearby shipping container rock barrier covered with an 800-peggy-square quilt made by knitters from as far afield as Britain, Sweden and Germany.

Helping others is part of the Christchurch ethos now and I think the city is a friendlier place, less cliquey.

There's a much greater spirit of collaboration in the business sector and competitors even share premises on occasion. My eldest son spent four hours digging an abandoned fishing net out of the sand at Waimairi Beach, one of 8000 volunteers who earned free tickets to a concert arranged by the Student Volunteer Army, an organisation he plans to join this year at the University of Canterbury.

Quirky post-quake humour abounds. At the opening of the Floral Festival last weekend the flower-be-decked portaloos on display included a cute one-room abode labelled "Affordable Government Housing Project". Primary school children with toilet brushes as microphones sang a Portaloo song to the tune of Abba's Waterloo with a chorus of "Oh, Oh, Oh portaloo, I couldn't hang on if I wanted to," followed by a verse about the after-effects of eating vindaloo.

With the passing of time we have become more optimistic that the worst is behind us, but we are still ever aware that life could change dramatically in a matter of seconds.

At the Christchurch Writers Festival I ran a workshop for people wanting to record their memories of February 22, 2011, and it was interesting to note common post-quake habits: sleeping with a torch beside the bed, keeping cellphones charged and cars topped up with petrol, and a reluctance to leave cupboard doors open lest another big shake chucked crockery around the kitchen.

When we holidayed in Sydney I found myself automatically moving a bottle of wine away from the edge of the bench in case there was an earthquake.

As I write this I haven't decided how to mark the second anniversary of the February 22 quake.

Maybe I'll visit the white chair memorial in the CBD where each of the 185 seats represents a life lost in the quakes.

More likely I'll walk along Sumner beach to Shag Rock, shaken down into an untidy basalt pile, gaze across the estuary where the seabed rose up to a metre, and quietly hope the earth is done with violent movement for a very long time.


Amanda Cropp is a Christchurch journalist and author of Shaken Not Stirred: Family Survival in a Quake Zone (Wily Publications 2012).

- NZ Herald

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