The wild east

19:02, Jan 28 2013
Pam Atkinson, front, and Fay Johnson keep an eye on the quake-devastated streets of Horseshoe lake as nature starts to take over.
Pam Atkinson, front, and Fay Johnson keep an eye on the quake-devastated streets of Horseshoe lake as nature starts to take over.

In six months, there will be no-one left in the Christchurch suburb of Horseshoe Lake. Nature is taking over and former residents have new homes. What will become of these empty streets? JOHN McCRONE reports.

Two jolly ladies come down the battered road armed with a pocketful of poppy seeds. Something colourful to sprinkle on the bare patches of liquefaction, add a splash of gaiety to the head-high weeds.

The east Christchurch suburb of Horseshoe Lake is in its final days of wind-down. Some 500 red- zoned homes on a boggy former market garden, a quiet tongue of land almost enclosed by park land and Shirley golf course, most of its houses were shot even after the first September earthquake.

Most of the inhabitants have now gone. The trickle which started last May had become a flood by the end of 2012. In December, there was a mass send- off party at the cricket ground as a closing act by a community brought close by shared disaster.

Today, there are just a dozen or so residents, like retired teacher Pam Atkinson and her neighbour Fay Johnson, remaining. And they are behaving like naughty children, Atkinson confesses with a beam.

Roaming where they like. Ignoring the threat of $1000 trespass fines to take shortcuts across the bulldozed sections and unfenced back gardens. Salvaging a pretty lilly plant or hunting for fallen walnuts and self-sewn veges. Attempting to find some lingering meaning in this semi-derelict landscape.


"We'll go, ooh look, there's a new opening. We can get through here now," Atkinson says.

"It's our way of coping. Walking around everyday and foraging. It's an achievement to find a special plant pushing its way up. Even in all this gungy, horrible mess, there is still beauty here."

The poppy seeds will make a nice surprise for someone next spring, she says. Or maybe not.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has extended the suburb's final departure deadline from April to July. But after that, who knows if the streets are going to be dug over and tidily grassed, or the whole area shut off and left to go wild?

There is an odd atmosphere about the place.

In the air, you can hear the crunch and rumble of yet another house being demolished, the buzz of council-employed weedcutters keeping the verges at bay. However, already this is a corner of Christchurch that has dropped off the map.

Atkinson says not even the rubberneckers come here any more. Security is pretty tight. Cera pays for round the clock Armourguard patrols - Atkinson waves as a familiar face in a ute drives past at that moment.

There is little enough to see anyway, as one pothole or shuttered building looks much like another.

Streets once visibly organised by the people who lived in them - the cars they owned, the gardens they kept, the pets they cared for - have taken on a dispiriting, tumbledown sameness.

And Atkinson reminds that just a block away, you are back into normality. Busy supermarkets, traffic, kids at the bus stop. All very strange.

Glenda Burt is enjoying lunch in the garden with her daughters.

The cracks and leans in her 1950s house, one of the originals in this nest of roads, are barely noticeable. But many of her favourite plants stand queued on the patio, sheeted in black plastic awaiting transport to the new section in Lincoln.

Just yesterday the home next door was pulled down rather abruptly.

"It was the old cowman's house apparently," Burt says.

A landmark from when Horseshoe Lake was still a market garden.

Burt, a founder of the Horseshoe Lake Residents' Association and until recently the area's representative on Cera's community forum, says there seems little rhyme or reason to the demolitions.

Some homes are left to rot for months, their carpets becoming a sea of mould. Others are bowled almost as soon as the owners are out the door.

"Usually the fences appear the week before, so you get a bit of warning."

Burt had been expecting to be on her way a lot sooner.

"We had a big family Christmas in 2011 because we thought it was going to be our last one here."

But things happened. Insurance, land zoning questions, the big decision where to go, then consent and building delays. In the middle of it all, her builder husband became seriously ill and died.

"Time just melted away." Still, she says, the section has now been bought and the house should be finished around May.

"It was a hard choice going out to Lincoln. Most of us wanted to stay here close to the east side. But I've found there's a small enclave of us going out there."

Burt considers the mood of those leaving. It is not at all angry or rebellious as seemed likely to be the case when the decision to write off the suburb was first taken, when people were vowing they would never be pushed out of their homes.

After the September 2010 quake, the houses were left crocked yet the authorities believed the land could still be repaired with dykes and piling. The community could remain where it was.

After February 2011, it became plain the damage was just too great. Further bouts of liquefaction, especially following the June and December aftershocks, confirmed it.

With Horseshoe Lake residents banding together on a Facebook page and at public meetings, united by their shared trials with insurers and bureaucrats as well as chemical toilets, erratic water and the other difficulties of daily living, there was a period of high activism. Eventually however, this became a sad acceptance of the suburb's fate.

Burt says now without any great fanfare, people are quietly slipping away. They were once brought very close but paths are again diverging.

The reality for red-zoners is that they are now preoccupied with the practicalities of moving into their new homes, establishing themselves in their new communities, she says. They are glad finally to be looking forwards rather than backwards.

"What 2013 means is a new beginning for just about everyone. There's only about one family I know who won't have a place to go to by the time we have to leave - and they're looking to go to the Prestons subdivision where the titles aren't available just yet," says Burt.

Perhaps in a few years there will be the mood for a suburb reunion, a nostalgic catchup, she says. But for the moment, there is a delight in being able to head off to some place new, to leave behind the reminders and draw a line under the whole sorry business of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Atkinson ticks off the fates of her neighbours. For a lot of the more elderly, it has not gone too well.

One couple in their 80s have moved into a local retirement home.

"They're not happy. They feel constricted. The wife has had several breakdowns since she's been there."

Another lady in her 80s is in a small unit by the Palms Shopping Centre. The elderly couple next door to her went to a mobile home in Hornby - he has had two heart attacks in quick succession.

With the younger families, many have been forced to travel a long way to find somewhere comparable to live. Atkinson says even with the red-zone payouts and insurance settlements, the quakes have cost most people about $100,000 in equity one way or another.

She knows one couple with a small boy who have gone down to Invercargill and bought a 10-acre block. Another neighbour with an engineering business has taken off for Oxford where he can afford to set up again in his own garage.

People are being scattered far and wide. Atkinson, a 69-year-old widow, is heading to Pegasus Town.

Her 10-year-old bungalow remains relatively liveable. Built on a solid concrete slab, it just sank into the ooze she says.

"After September, the hall sloped like the deck of a ship." Catching a quizzical glance at the flat-looking floor, Atkinson adds with a laugh: "And the house is still sinking, but it's sunk back to level again."

Atkinson did not expect to be one of the last to leave. She bought the Pegasus section in December 2011. But Waimakariri District Council suddenly got cautious about issuing consents and that created a delay. She is due to move in July.

Johnson is following her to Pegasus. Atkinson says it might have been preferable to buy an existing house in Christchurch, but the way the insurance settlements work - the difference between a quick payout and a full rebuild - most are finding a new house on a bare section makes the most financial sense.

"I didn't want to build a house, but to beat the insurance you've got no option. I've got a four- bedroom house and so they've got to build me a four-bedroom house. You choose your battles and cut your losses in different directions."

In the meantime, Atkinson says, she is enjoying her remaining days in Horseshoe Lake, observing the suburb go through the closing chapter of its quake story.

Is she nervous being isolated, among the last to depart? Atkinson says about five months ago there was more trouble. Doors pushed in. Tagging. Some abandoned tins of paint splashed up against a brick wall. She called the police when she saw two youths scrambling across the roof of a neighbour's house

"I'm dreading when Fay leaves because I'll really be on my own then. Yeah, that's quite scary, to be honest." There are other practical problems. On the broken roads, her car has needed so many puncture repairs and replaced shock absorbers she is praying it lasts until she moves.

But on the whole, she praises Cera, the police and the council for the way they have kept the essential services limping along even though there is now hardly anyone left. The post still comes, the bins get collected, the sewers are pumped out. There is no sense the authorities are putting on the squeeze to get people out that little bit faster.

"I'm surprised how well the powers-that-be have coped. Sure, there have been heaps of mistakes made, but they've a daunting task and I don't envy them. There've been a lot of good humans about."

Atkinson says common sense rules. Like when she is seen on her foraging expeditions. The police know she is another pair of eyes helping to keep the wind-down smooth and orderly.

"If we see strangers, we will confront them. We will want to know what they're doing in our area."

And there are useful jobs to be doing. People stop their mail but forget things that come only annually like their tax returns and car registration. So she has been redirecting a fair amount of post.

Likewise, it seems somehow more respectful to use up the silver beet and broad beans left growing in once loved gardens. Caring to the very end.

Atkinson is also there to appreciate the steady return of the wildlife. As you would expect, she says, the sprouting undergrowth attracts flocks of birds. The other day the magpies were madly dive- bombing a tree. Eventually, out flapped a great big hawk.

So there is some kind of job in being an unofficial witness to these small happenings as a red- zoned neighbourhood - so recently the scene of such drama - runs down towards a perhaps surprisingly muted conclusion.

What happens next to the land? Obvious to most is that Horseshoe Lake ought to become some kind of nature reserve.

There is talk the land has sunk so low it could be flooded to create an Olympic-standard rowing course for east Christchurch. Another line of thought is that the Crown, as the new owners, might lease it out as a market garden.

However, that runs the risk that in 20 years' time, once the ground has settled and the earthquakes are forgotten, the government of the day would then find it too tempting to flog off Horseshoe Lake for housing again.

Vivien Dwyer, who grew up as a child in the area and returned to raise a family of her own, shudders at the idea. Yet she says even on this question, people are probably more in a mood to move on.

A year ago, residents were hot for a say in what became of their property. "Now, most are just over it, really."

Their priorities have changed as resettlement elsewhere has become a reality.

Dwyer's home looks alarming. The brickwork around the garage has jagged gaps. Garden walls have caved in. She is waiting on a new build at the Ellington Park subdivision in Mairehau. "Building a new house is not our thing. It feels too big, too posh," she complains. But once more, the way the insurance works, it is the only sensible choice.

The family's move was supposed to happen by Christmas, but now looks like March. She needs to organise a digger because there are some magnolias and rhododendrons she intends taking with her.

Dwyer thinks there may be a few people who have to be prised out when Cera's July 31 deadline passes. At least a couple of homes were uninsured and at best, face a half-price Crown offer on the value of their section, so they might stick it out to the last to see how the authorities respond.

But Dwyer says she is grateful to be counting down the days. It is indeed time to say goodbye.

"My husband went to the section the other day to see how it was getting on and said, 'Oh, it's so noisy here - there's dogs, people going for walks, kids on scooters!' "

Aw, you mean like normal life, Dwyer replied. And that is what 2013 promises for many red-zoners, she agrees.

They have had to live through plenty over the past few years. This year is about moving on physically and psychologically, drawing a line under the past and discovering what it is like to begin again in some new place.

The Press