EYEBALLING THE COSMOS leaves you feeling small and insignificant. So it is with natural disasters. In February 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand’s most populous city after Auckland and the gateway to the South Island, was hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that claimed 185 lives and caused billions of dollars in damage. This much I knew going in. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extent of the devastation. While it’s pretty much business as usual in the suburban malls of Merivale and Riccarton, more than 10 blocks of the city center—the so-called “red zone”—have been cordoned off with chain-link fencing, beyond which the deserted streets look like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. Not that it’s completely devoid of life: I could see work crews clearing away rubble, and cranes and high-reach excavators bringing down dozens of condemned buildings. Among them, controversially, is Christchurch Cathedral, the iconic 19th-century Anglican church whose steeple collapsed in the quake.
During my visit this past April, local papers such as the Central Canterbury News were filled with heated opinion about Bishop Victoria Matthews’s decision to deconstruct rather than rebuild the beloved landmark; her most outspoken opponent appeared to be the Wizard of New Zealand (this, improbably, is an official title), a Gandalfian character with a pointy hat and black robe who’s delivered soapbox sermons in Cathedral Square for as long as anyone can remember. In one well-aimed barb, he called the bishop “seriously cracked.” But for all those Cantabrians waiting for insurance money to rebuild their ruined homes or businesses, there are more pressing concerns, not the least of which has been a series of aftershocks that geologists predict will continue for decades to come.
As I said, pretty bleak stuff for a travel story.
And yet, it’s hard not to be grimly fascinated by a place that, in the face of such devastation, has pulled itself up by its bootstraps.
“There are so many good recovery stories here,” said Kelly Stock of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, who last year left her job at the local Mercedes-Benz dealership to “do my part” by helping to woo tourists back to the city. “Christchurch has always had strong people, a strong character, I suppose because so many of us are from tough farming stock. But the way the community has pulled together has been incredible. Before the quake, you might not have known your neighbors; now, you do, and we check in on each other, helping out where we can. It was a high price to pay, but the quake has taught us that we’re capable of so much more than we thought.”
One hears about the student army of thousands of young volunteers who helped to provide meals and drinking water to elderly residents, and to clear away the 360,000 tons of silt and sludge forced up through the ground by a seismic phenomenon known as liquefaction. One reads encomiums to Mayor Bob Parker, whose leadership throughout the disaster has been likened to that of post-9/11 New York’s Rudy Giuliani. And one sees signs of recovery everywhere, from the new 17,000-seat rugby stadium to the former grain warehouse that now serves as the temporary home of the Court Theatre, one of the country’s top theater companies. Then there are the repurposed shipping containers: lots and lots of them.