The Christchurch earthquake dilemma: Should we go or stay put?

Should we stay or should we go? Cantabrians wrestled with this question after the February 2011 earthquake. As the city marks the fifth anniversary, Robin Judkins, creator of the iconic multi-sport race, The Coast to Coast, tells why he stayed, while Sam Fisher explains why he left, and the play that resulted.
Robin Judkins at his home in Sumner, Christchurch. Photo / Simon Baker
Robin Judkins at his home in Sumner, Christchurch. Photo / Simon Baker

Robin Judkins

I stayed in my home after the Christchurch earthquakes because I loved it. I loved the view, the garden and the house. And when all my neighbours left because we had no power, water or sewerage I loved it even more. Because of the silence.

For four weeks after the February earthquake it was heaven on a stick. And again in June when the cliffs fell down and there was no road access. It was nirvana - no neighbours, no power, no water and no traffic. Living in the city became wilderness-living in the quake zone. Perfect.

My life changed. I went from being called The Moth (If you left your outside light on at night then I was sure to call) to The Hermit (up before dawn, never leaving the property and to bed at sundown). I lost weight, ate the fridge-freezer to death and then got rid of it. I began making my house safe to live in again.

It was hugely exciting. I caught a looter, who was immediately locked up for 21 days, and was then burgled three times, with the police catching one through his fingerprints.
Because my house was hard up against the red-zoned cliffs, I was constantly hassled by sightseers who treated my property as a human zoo, only in this case the endangered species was uncaged and chased them off with a shovel.

Three times I fled the house when the shaking wouldn't stop but I couldn't stay away and raced back home the next day. I couldn't leave. I just couldn't. Everything pulled me back home.

I cleaned the house over and over again finding pieces of my life jammed in places where they didn't fit and trapped in cracks that would never open again. I lost the love of possessions and found the love of nature.

The view of Sumner from Robin Judkins' house. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The view of Sumner from Robin Judkins' house. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I cried and cried until my cat and dog came back. Then they wouldn't leave the house except to walk the garden paths with me. At night Meow slept on my pillow with his paw on my head while Boyo Dogstar lay with his head across my ankles. Hog heaven.

I stayed in my house because I loved it. I still do.

Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher. Photo / Supplied
Sam Fisher. Photo / Supplied

I write this having just heard that another 5.7 quake has shaken my old hometown, nearly five years since the devastating 22 February 2011 'event'. As we've been reminded, they are horrible, at times terrifying events, but it was the aftermath and not the random shaking that led me to leave.

I arrived in Wellington in early 2015 like that great-uncle who came back from the war; with nothing, nightmares, talking about things no one understood, and with emotional scars, possibly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It took me time to learn to 'not mention the war'.

I look at breaking up with Christchurch like that relationship that ended painfully when no one was sure whose fault it was. Was it when she failed to set up sustainable future businesses, turned her back on energy efficiency in the rebuild, was beastly to all the city's tenants while rewarding all those who got extra houses with Audis and double cam utes? Or was it when she put the lights out on any hopes of large central parks and recreation areas?

We'll never know what happened to the many lost opportunities, but it's clear there were none left for me. Devoid of a building company, large tracts of land, friends in high places and having instead a spot of PTSD, a broken business, marriage and life, it was time to go.

My grandparents, parents and others are buried in Christchurch and my history goes back to my grandmother arriving on a cart in the 1930s with family - escaping Dunedin bailiffs and my chronic alcoholic grandfather. But Christchurch was my Turangawaewae - the Avon area in St Martins my river and the Southern Alps and Port Hills my peaks.

The end of feeling at home in Christchurch began a few days after February 22 with the strong realisation that the city I'd grown up in was gone. Working for the Fire Service and travelling into the centre I saw my city in rubble.

It took me two more years to know that my communities were also destroyed. Christchurch was unfaithful and now run by a whole new class of networks and decision-makers. She didn't talk to me anymore; I was an inconvenience.

Christchurch had been home regardless of where I was and how much I earned or what success I had elsewhere. I was always aware of old money, conservatism and the preoccupation with rating people by secondary school attendance, but I was convinced that a genuine commitment to people and community underpinned the city. A sense of fairness and care made it a real place to live, a city not caught in the rush to be flashy or important, with real Kiwi values and accepted eccentrics. But after 2011 old Christchurch was just gone.

Or perhaps the values I saw were an illusory veneer. If you have a disaster and then scratch below the surface in any Kiwi town would there be an anti-planning, greedy, short-sighted village? Maybe it was just too big a disaster for a declining town. Anyway she wasn't who I thought she was.

It is interesting how the feelings I had have surfaced. There's stress, panic, anger, and all the other emotions, but without planning or intending to I have a play based on the themes of mistrust and betrayal. Running at BATS Theatre in Wellington from March 15-24 it's called WOLF. The work is not a worthy biopic, but does faithfully record the attitudes and earthquake issues that Christchurch locals dealt with. It's a gothic story of betrayal with veneers being stripped away as people are suddenly in an unfamiliar, often uncaring world. It grew organically out of the feelings that all the things you become accustomed to, rely on and make you feel comfortable are suddenly gone. And like the rental crisis and loss of livelihoods and houses the new spirit is brutal and evil.

The ground, some of your neighbours and Christchurch are the WOLF the play talks about.

For me, the events that destroyed the Cathedral, my business, my favourite cafes and the communities I loved caused irreconcilable differences. It's over, and clearly (apart from a few people who really did help) Christchurch doesn't miss me.

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- NZ Herald

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