Christchurch – A ‘Munted’ City

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The last time I visited Christchurch, the city center was lively and bustling. The evening air was filled with the sounds of cars, buses, chatter, the clinks of pint glasses, and boot heels on pavement.

These days, however, the city is quiet. The main sounds come from jackhammers and the heavy machinery that is trying to put Christchurch back together — or at least tear parts of it down so that it can be rebuilt.

Christchurch earthquake

The city is “munted,” the locals say — ruined, messed up, destroyed, fucked; take your pick.

And, even now, three months after the February 22 earthquake that brought Christchurch to its knees, things are still in varying states of “munt” all around the city.

Christchurch earthquake
An old government building

On some streets, there are few signs of any trouble. Life seems to be going on quite normally, and the only sign of damage might be a crack in the pavement or an uneven sidewalk; barely noticeable.

But then you round a corner to find a home with a wall missing or a church with its spire on the ground. And you are reminded.

Christchurch earthquake

I'm not writing this post to try and dredge up bad memories for those people who lived through this disaster in Christchurch. I can't even imagine the fear and horror they must have went through on that day, and in the weeks and months since as aftershocks have continued to rattle both homes and nerves.

Instead, I'm writing this post to remind the rest of us that it's far from over. Just because the earthquake has made its way out of the media doesn't mean that its aftermath is over. In fact, the aftermath is really just beginning. It will likely be years before the city is back to normal. And, even then, it will be a new kind of “normal.” A post-quake normal that will never really be the same. Chirstchurch — and the people who call it home — will be forever changed.

Christchurch earthquake
“Kia kaha,” meaning “Forever strong” in Maori, has become a common phrase around the city.

There's always the fear, too, of more earthquakes. In fact, the night I arrived in Christchurch, I was awoken at 3 a.m. by a 5.3-magnitude temblor that shook the entire house I was staying in for 8 or 9 seconds. It was disorienting and scary, but luckily it didn't cause any further damage or injury in the city.

But these aftershocks — which are frequent — aren't over. The damage is still everywhere you look, whether it's cracks in walls, or cracks in the nerves of the people of Christchurch, who now often go to bed fully clothed with transistor radios near their heads, just in case they have to flee their homes in the middle of the night.

Christchurch earthquake

It's amazing to think that Mother Nature can cause so much damage in just 15 seconds. 15 seconds. That's how long the Feb. 22 earthquake lasted. And yet, three months later, scars from that 15 seconds still remain. It gives me goosebumps to think that lives can end and/or be forever changed in such a short amount of time.

Christchurch earthquake

When I was in Christchurch, I talked to many people about their earthquake experiences. In fact, in the city, it's still the main topic of conversation.

I heard stories of people who were out of town when it happened and returned home not knowing what they would find. There were people who were in or around Cathedral Square at the time of the quake, who had to literally run for their lives through gooey liquefaction and crumbled pavement. There were others who risked their lives to help fellow survivors.

There are so many stories here. Even those lucky people who didn't lose anything (be it a home or a loved one) have compelling stories.

Christchurch earthquake
This was one of the most chilling things I saw. The staircase in this building collapsed, and people were trapped for 10-12 hours. Luckily, everyone made it out safely.

I met up with John on my last day in Christchurch, and he gave me a walking tour of the city — or, at least what's left of it.

This is a city he and his family still call home, and to say I was moved by his tour would be an understatement.

Christchurch earthquake
The note on the top of these flowers began with “Dear Mommy, no one told you ‘Happy Mother's Day' this year…” I cried reading it, and I still tear up looking at it.

The physical damage, too, is still painfully apparent all over downtown Christchurch.

Some streets are still closed off, with rubble simply lying behind fences until crews figure out how to safely deal with the munted buildings.

Christchurch earthquake

Many homes — beautiful, old homes — in the city center are abandoned, bearing red “No Go” stickers that mean they will have to be demolished.

Christchurch earthquake
All homes/buildings in the city had to be inspected, and received either green, yellow or red stickers.

Other buildings — historical ones that the city hopes to be able to save — are literally tied together with cables and propped up by steel beams.

Christchurch earthquake

Very few church spires remain intact; many are sat weirdly on the ground, looking a bit lost.

Christchurch earthquake

And then there are streets like this one, where it looks like a bomb went off.

Christchurch earthquake

These are the parts of the city that cannot be saved. In these areas, everything will have to be torn down and slowly rebuilt.

Christchurch earthquake

It was a very sobering and moving experience to walk around the quiet city with John, hearing the stories and thinking of how beautiful a city Christchurch was before Mother Nature had her way with it.

Christchurch earthquake

But, of course, with the bad also comes some good. Many people in Christchurch are now looking forward, to the opportunity that lies before them to rebuild their city. In many cases, they will be starting with a clean slate.

While people are still mourning for New Zealand's Garden City, many are also anxious to move forward. They are ready for a new, better Christchurch. And that's actually kind of exciting.

A fresh start for Christchurch

Right now in Christchurch, it's not just about mourning the losses or planning for the demolition and reconstruction. It's also about the opportunities and hopefulness that are beginning to seep into the consciousness of the locals.

Yes it's true that many historic buildings may have to be torn down. And it's true that Christchurch will never go back to the way it used to be. But, as so many locals said to me while I was there, with the bad often also comes some good. And this is the case in Christchurch.

Christchurch earthquake
The community, for example, has come together over this disaster.

Christchurch will certainly not be rebuilt overnight. But it WILL be rebuilt.

Already there are areas that have been cleared of rubble. That corner where a string of shops used to be? Empty. That 7-story building that crumbled to the ground? Cleared away. The work may be moving slowly, but it is moving. And the people of Christchurch are starting to become hopeful.

The residents may have a chance to contribute their input into future plans for the city, too. The city planners and officials are taking into account what the residents of Christchurch want. What do THEY want their new city to look like? What features do THEY want the “new” Christchurch to have?

Here, essentially, is a chance for the people of Christchurch to take a terrible situation and turn it into a great opportunity to improve their city.

Christchurch earthquake
How can you not be hopeful in a city that's still so beautiful?

Yes, it's true that strong aftershocks still shake the city. But most residents are convinced that the worst is behind them. They are starting to replace the photos on the wall and the wine glasses in the cupboard. They are looking forward to the new Christchurch.

And, I must say, this attitude is inspiring to experience.

Kia kaha, Christchurch!

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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74 Comments on “Christchurch – A ‘Munted’ City

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  1. Learnt a beautiful phrase today : KIA KAHA – forever strong.Heart touching story.Wish the world was safer.

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    I think you’d be surprised to see the city now – quite a bit has changed since those photos. The Cathedral is far worse and a lot of those buildings have now been demolished. Good to see you have let some people on the other side of the world see what happened here though 🙂 They say it’s the “rebuild” stage but to me it’s more like the “demolition” stage. So many empty spaces. Unfortunately I am not so positive over the whole thing. I think it’s because all our heritage buildings have gone and they are going to replace them with concrete blocks. It makes me sad.

      It is indeed really sad that a lot of Christchurch’s historical buildings have had to come down. And it’s tough to see what a slow process rebuilding has been. 🙁 But I’m confident the city will bounce back! I’ll be interested to see what it looks like the next time I visit NZ.

    I just wanted to say thank you for this post. I was there for the first earthquake in September and many subsequent aftershocks, but I was living in Chicago for the Feb one. Trying to get hold of my family and friends was the worst experience of my life, but luckily everyone I know survived. I went home this Christmas, and it was very hard to see the extent of the damage. pretty much all the buildings on columbo/manchester street have been demolished, and in the city center there are giant parking lots where there used to be buildings. I really appreciate you bringing awareness to people, and I’d like to get the message out that Christchurch will rise up stronger than ever and will soon once again be a great place to visit 🙂

      I can’t wait to go back in a few years and see Christchurch back on its feet – because I have no doubt that it’ll rebound better than ever!

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