Christchurch enveloped in building pressure

16:00, Feb 23 2013

It was a hot, nearly cloudless day in the suburb of Mt Pleasant when Lisa Cobb and her two young children walked past a sign hanging on a metal wire fence which read: "Danger enter at your own risk."

Phoebe, 6, and Felix, 7, hopped on to their scooters and rolled past another sign that read "danger keep out", then another: "danger live wires". They rolled past a turquoise portable loo, a handful of potholes and a digger sitting idly atop a mound of dust and rubble and piles of worn-down, brown tyres.

School was out in Christchurch. Children filtered out of gates and across zebra crossings manned by dedicated miniature professionals in orange hi-vis vests. The following week some schools would be told they were to close. Others would have to merge and some would remain open.

Children would cry and the voices of principals would crack as they revealed the bad news. Others, with a better tale to tell, would pump their fists into the air and hug in relief.

That Friday, it would be two years since Felix started to feel his body "wobble" as his feet stayed firmly planted on a rolling earth. It would be two years since he, among the thousands of other children throughout the city, spent the night in a sleepover at their school.

Two years on and there was no supermarket in the area anymore. But there was a farmers' market that sprang up at the bottom of the hill. There were no swimming pools now. But the family still has the beach down the road at Sumner where containers still lined the road protecting motorists from the risk of falling rocks.


"There is a hope," Lisa said as she shuttled the kids to the edge of the road and waited to cross, "but it seems to be a long way away."

There had been progress in the central business district. Lisa was aware of that. There was, according to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, a "resilience" in the community. In a survey, 74 per cent of respondents had reported their overall quality of life as "good" or "extremely good".

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee would say the CBD red zone "could now be renamed". That part of Christchurch would now be the "Rebuild Zone", he announced as part of a media tour. Journalists then watched as a crane latched on to the side of a building and pulled off the tip of a wall. Bricks tumbled into a pile below.

The mood, according to leaders, business owners and property developers was "excitement", journalists were told.

Not that Lisa cared much. She did not go into town much anymore.

She did not venture much anywhere anymore.

She found herself staying close to home, sometimes heading further to MacLean's Park or Bottle Lake so the kids could have a run around. The community had banded together over the past two years and the school had helped bring people closer.

Besides, it was still difficult to get anywhere. Routes would change. Detours marked by road cones would go up with little or no notice. Cars would rock and roll with the ill-placed rhythm of potholes that still punctuated the roads. Life just seemed to sputter by at the recommended speed of 30kmh.

"Sometimes I just want to go and live somewhere else and let everyone else suffer," Lisa said.

"That sounds bad, but I think some people feel that way."

Across town in Avonside, Robin Thomas was inspecting the damage. He was sure there were squatters living in Morris St houses. He had a real fear of arsonists. On his house, the last legitimately occupied on the street, were warnings in thick black spraypainted capitals. "CAMERA ALARM".

In a red fisherman's hat and camouflage pants, he hobbled a few houses up before looking around.

"It's a bit of a nightmare here. And it's not over yet."

His was one of 7857 red-zone properties throughout Canterbury and one of the 5479 households that had settled on a sale-and-purchase agreement. Of the 18,500 properties so badly hit by the quakes that the damage bill exceeded the Earthquake Commission's $100,000 liability cap, about a third had settled with private insurers.

There were few neighbours around any more. The occasional car rattled past white picket fences and letter boxes sitting on the pavement. A lone Canterbury Crusaders flag flapped limply in the wind and a faded Neighbourhood Watch sign was loosely fixed to a streetlight.

A motorcycle accident many years ago left Thomas with limited mobility. But he still rode that bike and he still lived alone in the same wooden villa since 1971.

Thomas wasn't sentimental about his home.

His insurance payout had now come through though and he was just waiting to find a decent piece of land facing northeast for the light. He didn't care where it was. As long as it was on a bus route. In July, his home would be demolished.

People had panicked after the earthquake, Thomas said as he sipped his tea. Even as he sat, he could look through the house and declare that it was all square and true. Everything opened and shut, he said. The only thing damaged was his dark room and the flooring which seeped with liquefaction. The dried up gunk still lurked beneath his carpet.

"Back then, the panic was unbelievable," he said.

With panic came zoning and sure enough his neighbours, who in the aftermath of the quakes asked Thomas to feed their pets or water their gardens, started getting out.

"What are we running from?" a note on his sliding door read.

"The World, or the End of It?"

Captain Matt Gauldie stood in front of a painting and could still smell crushed brick and concrete dust. The piece reminded him of dried liquefaction - the finely ground silt that blew everywhere and anywhere.

He was in Christchurch in September 2010 when the first quake hit. The painting was a moment in time. A young female Territorial Force soldier on the corner of Colombo and Manchester streets. It had once hung in the Canterbury Museum. Now it was part of an exhibit called Quake City which memorialised the earthquakes that had struck Christchurch.

Gauldie, the New Zealand Defence Force artist, created the piece from photographs he took. He finished it while staying at Burnham Military Camp, while the aftershocks still rolled through the Canterbury Plains. He set up in a deserted engineers compound and felt earthquakes rumbling in the darkness.

At the Quake City opening, VIPs were treated to pinot noir and smoked chicken sandwiches as they walked through the space looking at life-size dioramas of bubbling, roiling gardens, search-and-rescue mannequins, a statue of Canterbury founder John Robert Godley reclining horizontally, the bell from the Christchurch Basilica and the claw of a digger that was used to save a chandelier from an unsteady building.

There was a security video taken at the moment the February earthquake struck. At 12.51, a man walks into the middle of the street. The walls of a brick building shake.

Another man seems to take shelter in the structure's door frame as it crumbles around him. As he emerges, a jogger in bright red shorts runs past. An Audi 4WD vehicle with the number plate "CHPMNK" flashes its hazard lights. The man in the middle of the street looks around at the carnage and puts his hand to his head in disbelief.

At the exhibition, there was also a high-resolution graphic flyover of what the city would look like. The Christchurch blueprint was laid out in precise fashion. There were "precincts" and stadiums and hubs all delineated like Lego blocks of varying colours. It would become a global city, the narrator said.

Gauldie and Major Brendan Wood left the exhibition at dusk. They wandered across what used to be called "the strip" and tried to remember what used to be there.

The pair had been involved since the beginning. Wood, the chief instructor at the Defence Force Health School, led the first contingent of army health forces into the city after the February quake.

Gauldie arrived several days later and tagged on to several Territorial Force contingents as they went from area to area securing the city. He was an observer armed with a camera, sketch pad and pen.

He was there when people were still being pulled from buildings and when there was a minute's silence for the victims of the CTV building a week after it collapsed.

At times he felt sleazy - like a voyeur at someone else's tragedy. Gauldie had been to all of the Defence Force's major overseas deployments but here, in Christchurch, the devastation hit home. A week-and-a-half after the February quake, he spent some time at a friend's place in Glentunnel, an hour west of Christchurch. He was walking around a field with some horses when it hit him. He burst into tears.

Two years on, it amazed Gauldie that there were buildings in the CBD that are still there. There are office lobbies still strewn with documents. Weeds growing half a metre high.

There were empty spaces now.

"It's a bit like a boxer that has had all his teeth smashed out," he said.

"It doesn't make for the greatest smile."

When people from outside of Christchurch asked Wood how the city was doing, he still did not know how to respond. There was no city.

"There are still so many strands missing."

Wood said it was the mundane things he missed.

He still did not know what happened to the person who cut his hair who had resided on Manchester St. In his car's sun visor, he put his barber's business card.

It was constant reminder about how much had changed - big and small.

"We have lost so much and the disruption continues," he said. "But there is an absolute sense that we can't abandon the city."

The pair walked over the Avon River and looked down Hereford St.

Gauldie wondered whether people would refer to what used to stand as the "old Christchurch". Something else was springing up. This was something new.

"And one is not like the other," he said.

Antony Gough stood on Oxford Tce in the hole where his small empire of bars and restaurants once stood. He was dressed in a pale blue suit and crocodile skin shoes that shimmered like polished paua.

He spoke of investment. There were hundreds of millions of dollars going into redeveloping "the strip", he said.

New hospitality venues would spring up. It would be like Melbourne. It would open up the Avon River. The river would come to the city and the city to the river, he said. It would be some time before it all became a reality. But slowly, things were happening.

The inner-city cordon had shrunk by 90 per cent. In the coming months, the army that had manned the edges of the red zone would move on. The blank spaces would be filled. New Regent St, a retail art deco avenue, built in the wake of the 1931 Napier earthquake, would be opened next month.

In a patch of gravel behind the red-zone cordon, the bones of a day-stay hospital were taking shape. There were steel I-beams and cranes and piles of building materials waiting to be used.

Amid it all was a large white marquee filled with high-vis vests and hard hats, all facing a lectern and a microphone.

"It was the most extraordinary time in our lives that you could ever imagine," Mayor Bob Parker told the audience.

"There is still a long way to go and there are many people with many issues... but every hour going by, things are getting better, things are changing."

In the months since February 2011, there had been 10,000 aftershocks. At the start, 51 of those had been above magnitude 5, but now it had been a full year without any above that level.

Energy was beginning to flow towards recovery, Parker said. But there was, he reiterated, a long, long way to go.

As the bus filled with journalists rolled out of the red zone, on the corner of High, Lichfield and Manchester streets, was a Phil Price kinetic sculpture. Named Nucleus, it was a nine-metre-high, three-dimensional circle split into four equal parts along sharp fault lines. Each part moved independently.

Sometimes they moved together, sometimes in opposing directions. Amid the demolition and the reconstruction, it was still there, still rolling in the breeze.

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