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. Amanda, thank you for writing your article on Christchurch. As I’ve heard and read great things about the South Island and Christchurch in particular, I’m interested in seeing and meeting people of the South Island. The stories about perseverance and resiliency of the people are amazing.

      You are very welcome, Henry. I think you will find that New Zealanders really are quite awesome. The people of Christchurch especially never ceased to surprise and amaze me. When is your South Island trip? Have fun!

    Great Post, Amanda! And the photos tell quite a story. I think it must have been hard on New Zealand that the Japanese disaster happened so soon after theirs – it certainly diverted media attention and potential aid. Very sad what happened: I love that city!

      Yes, the timing of all the recent quakes certainly was extra devastating to everyone involved. Christchurch is still hurting, and still being shaken around by some pretty strong aftershocks. It sucks to watch a place you love go through something like that. 🙁

    Very sobering pictures. It never fails to amaze me how fragile we all are and, despite our many advances, how terribly powerless we are in the face of Mother Nature.

      Even “earthquake proofing” can’t save cities in some cases. It really makes you think about how fragile life is, and how powerful Mother Nature can be. I know the people of Christchurch are certainly looking at life in an entirely new way now after this ordeal.

    A beautiful, but sobering post. The photos really tell the story of the devastation in Christchurch. When these types of events fade out of our daily news, it’s easy to think that it’s over. But that’s not the case in Christchurch and Japan. It seems that picking up the pieces is never covered as thoroughly as the immediate event. Thanks for showing us what it’s really like.

      You’re welcome, Donna – and thank you. I’m sure Japan is having very similar issues right now. Though, they are having to deal with both quake AND water damage. I can’t even imagine how long that cleanup will take. Poor Christchurch, though – they just keep having all these aftershocks! A handful last week brought down more damaged buildings. It’s definitely important to remember that events like these are far from over, even after the media stops covering them.

    Great write-up Amanda, sad but good to see the photos of my city. I was there in April but at that stage you could access very little of the streets in the center. I hope your trip goes well, enjoy the rest of it!

      Thanks, Mark. A lot more of the city is open now (though Cathedral Square probably will be closed for months still), but there’s still so much damage everywhere. It was tough to see, but I’m glad I did.

      I’m actually back from New Zealand now, and missing it already!

    What a sobering post. Thank you so much for sharing this and for reminding us outside of Christchurch that people are still dealing with this. It may not be in the news in America, but it doesn’t mean this isn’t still affecting people. I appreciate the update and wish nothing but the best for the people there.

      Thank you. I feel weird saying “you’re welcome” to all of you who have been thanking me for sharing this. After being there, there was really no question that this post had to be written. In fact, I began writing it immediately after touring the city. It was the least I could do for Christchurch.

    Incredibly powerful post. Fantastic. Thank you.

      Thank YOU, Alex. I’m glad the post resonated with you.

    This is really sad to see. When we are not directly impacted by something, it is easy to forget. This is a good reminder that people’s lives are still being impacted and a city will never again be the same.

      Out of sight, out of mind, right? But, even though the photos of the damage aren’t circulating anymore like they were right after the quake, the people of Christchurch are still dealing with this every day. I’m glad to be able to remind people (including myself) of that fact.

    Great report Amanda. Must have been a sobering experience.

      Sobering is exactly the word for it, Caz. It’s something that will definitely stay with me for a long time, but I’m still glad I saw and experienced it in person.

    I don’t even know how to response to this. I’ve seen pictures, but these photos touching my heart much more. The “help” on the window, the happy mother’s day flower… Thanks for sharing this with us, Amanda. It must had been hard to be there…

      It was indeed hard at times to be there, especially seeing those few things you mentioned — the call for help, the flowers, the notes left for lost loved ones. You don’t really understand the magnitude of a disaster like this until you see it firsthand. In a way, I’m glad I was there, because it makes it much more real for me now. And I’m glad I’ve been able to share it with others and make them aware, too.

    Wow… that’s devastating. I hope they are on their way to recovery – I know that can be very tough. We’re going to be there in November.

      They are slowly on their way to recovery, but it’s going to take a long time. I’m sure there will still be plenty of signs of the quake when you’re there in November… but I would strongly encourage you to still visit Christchurch! They need all the help they can get right now.

    Extremely sad..the last time I visited Christchurch was several years ago – almost 15 and the city was a like a town out of fairy lands quiet and beautiful

      It really was a beautiful city – and I’m confident it will be one once again! Thanks for reading.

    The photos really drive it home. It’s one thing to see images through mainstream media, it’s an entirely different feeling seeing photos taken by regular people. Powerful post

      Thanks, Cam. In this case, the photos really do say thousands of words, I think.

      I’m so glad to see this post getting as much attention as it has… I’m really proud of it, and I’m honored to be able to share the story of Christchurch and its people.

    Thanks for posting this story with all the photos. It made my legs feel weak – we just had a big earthquake in Costa Rica, but it stopped at 10 seconds at the epicenter, so damage was minimal. It really freaked everyone out, knowing that just a few seconds more would have meant a major disaster.

      Sounds like you’re very lucky, Erin. It’s scary to realize what the ground under our feet is capable of, and that we can do nothing to stop it. Seeing Christchurch in ruins was tough, but I knew it deserved to have its story told. Thanks for reading.

    I’ve never been to New Zealand but of course watched this awful news story with everyone else. But no story covered everything as richly as this post! Thank you so much for it.

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