Christchurch earthquake: Eerie images of city's red-zone, five years on

By Mike Scott, Olivia Carville

Christchurch's red-zoned land resembles a ghost town following the deadly 2011 earthquake. Photo / Mike Scott
Christchurch's red-zoned land resembles a ghost town following the deadly 2011 earthquake. Photo / Mike Scott

Monday marks the fifth anniversary of the February 22, 2011 quake that devastated Christchurch. Over the next week we'll be telling the stories of those who stayed to help the city rebuild and examining its future as the rebirth continues.

For the past five years, huge pockets of residential Christchurch have been devoid of life. The land deemed as red-zone in the aftermath of the deadly 2011 earthquake has deteriorated from a quake-shattered suburbia to a lifeless landscape.

Herald journalists Olivia Carville and Mike Scott visited the wastelands a few days before the Valentine's Day quake.

Ghost town

Few signs of life remain in the red-zone. Photo / Mike Scott
Few signs of life remain in the red-zone. Photo / Mike Scott

It's a barren wasteland that was once home to hundreds of people.

Christchurch's residential red-zone snakes alongside the Avon River from the city to the sea, stretching across 630 hectares and thousands of homes.

On official maps, the land is earmarked red - in reality it's a green and brown ghost town.

Few signs of suburbia remain; little more than lamp posts, footpaths and unruly trees line the boundaries of now-empty sections.

Grass grows through cracks in the streets and weeds lay siege to isolated playgrounds.

Condemned homes

Condemned houses shows signs of what used to be in the eastern suburbs. Photo / Mike Scott
Condemned houses shows signs of what used to be in the eastern suburbs. Photo / Mike Scott

More than 7200 homes have been razed to the ground in the past five years in Christchurch.

As authorities near the end of the red-zone demolition phase, only about 500 houses now await destruction, according to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA).

Of those, 300 lie in the Port Hills, 28 in the flatlands and the owners of the remaining 150 are yet to reach a settlement with the Crown.

These condemned houses were built decades ago, but they no longer belong - they are isolated, fenced in, boarded up.

At one Avonside property, toys are half-submerged in silt, graffiti stains the walls and weeds creep in through a window sill.

Newspapers from 2010 lie under dust on the floor and a sodden couch sits on the patio, with stuffing the colour of cartoon cheese pushing out of the torn fabric.

Standing still

Abandoned homes stand awaiting demolition. Photo / Mike Scott
Abandoned homes stand awaiting demolition. Photo / Mike Scott

Homes awaiting demolition are empty shells - uninhabited, but full of memory.

Names and height measurements are still etched into a kitchen doorway in Bexley.

Childrens' homework sheets and school journals are strewn through the hallway.

Barbie cups sit in the cupboard, smeared with sticky dust, and a pair of small sandals lie on the patio, discoloured by time.

The carpet is damp to touch and the kitchen taps no longer work.

In the garage a piano stands against the far wall; a plume of dust emerges at the depression of the keys.

Forgotten community

"Open 7 Days" signs remain standing despite shops long having closed. Photo / Mike Scott
"Open 7 Days" signs remain standing despite shops long having closed. Photo / Mike Scott

It's not just homes that were abandoned and demolished in the wake of February 22, 2011 - shops, restaurants and community centres were also forced to close.

A corner dairy on New Brighton Rd stands as the last bastion of suburbia.

The front facade slumps towards the concrete, threatening to collapse at any moment, while the bolted front door advertises: "Open 7 Days."

Inside, the air is thick and damp.

Video cassettes, DVDs and red milk cartons litter the floor and posters are half-ripped from the walls.

In the yard behind the dairy, grass and weeds reach up to the clothesline.

Suburban oasis

Due to being uninsured and not settling an agreed payout, Martin and Rae Francis still live in Christchurch's redzone. Photo / Mike Scott
Due to being uninsured and not settling an agreed payout, Martin and Rae Francis still live in Christchurch's redzone. Photo / Mike Scott

In the middle of the Upper Bexley swampland, Martin and Rae Francis live in a tidy oasis.

Their uninsured red-zoned property is one of the last remaining in the flatlands.

Despite the surrounding terrain, the Francis' lawns are manicured, their flowers are blooming and their potatoes, tomatoes and courgettes are growing on abandoned Crown land next door.

Standing on their property, you cannot see another house in any direction, but Mr Francis said the lack of neighbours means they have "no arguments, no dogs and no noise complaints."

"It's like living on a lifestyle block, but we don't have to cut the grass or look after the animals," he said.

The retired pair were offered half the land value of their property - $53,000 - but said they refused to leave until the Government "comes back with a decent offer."

'I don't feel safe here'

Graffiti covers the walls of condemned homes. Photo / Mike Scott
Graffiti covers the walls of condemned homes. Photo / Mike Scott

Life in the red-zone comes with regular tyre punctures from pot-holed roads and the constant fear of break-ins or looters.

The Francis' have gone through four sets of tyres since February 2011 and said they heard their neighbours' homes being burgled before they were torn down.

In November, Mr Francis, 73, was diagnosed with prostate cancer and his wife fears staying in the house alone.

"I don't feel safe here. We can't go anywhere and leave the place like this," she said.

"It would be a sitting duck."

A house a few streets down from the Francis' home is also awaiting demolition: The windows are smashed, the furniture ransacked and the walls covered in graffiti.

Teenage squatters

Police order squatters to leave one of the few houses left standing the red-zone area of Christchurch. Photo / Mike Scott
Police order squatters to leave one of the few houses left standing the red-zone area of Christchurch. Photo / Mike Scott

Abandoned and isolated homes are not only prone to looters, but also become destination targets for squatters.

Earlier this month, police kicked three young squatters out of a red-zoned house a few minutes down the road.

Craig Page, 22, Samantha Ritchie, 21, and Cheyenne Dawson, 18, snuck into the damaged house through an open window.

They carried blankets, a mattress and a flat-screen television into the lounge and said they stayed for two nights before police caught them.

"We had nowhere to go and we didn't know it was somebody's house," Page said.

"It was in the red-zone. We said we were sorry."

Final deadline

The barren landscape is usually devoid of life. Photo / Mike Scott
The barren landscape is usually devoid of life. Photo / Mike Scott

Other than the odd person walking a dog, signs of life are now scarce in these forgotten lands - but plans for the future are underway.

Various suggestions have been put forward for the long term use of the now empty land, including turning it into sports fields, dog parks, cemeteries, BMX tracks or motorhome parking.

Community groups and local authorities will be meeting to plan the future use of Christchurch's red-zone wasteland in the near future.

And, for the remaining 150 homeowners that have dug in their heels and are yet to settle with the Crown over their red-zoned properties, the final settlement date is Friday 26.

- NZ Herald

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