New Zealand earthquake: Hard to move on when ground keeps moving

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One year ago, a massive earthquake in New Zealand killed 185 people and destroyed much of downtown Christchurch. In the year since the magnitude 6.3 quake, New Zealanders have tried to piece together their lives and rebuild, even as earthquakes continue to rock the island nation east of Australia.

The Times talked to Deon Swiggs, the 25-year-old director of the fledgling nonprofit Rebuild Christchurch, about how New Zealanders are coping one year later.

Where were you when the earthquake hit last year?

I was in my office in the CBD [central business district]; a friend and I, we were about to have lunch in one of the malls. ... Quite luckily, she was running late. She tweeted me at 12:49 and said she was running late. And then the earthquake happened.


I think it took about 40 seconds. The ground just jumped. I was thrown across to the other side of the room in the office. All the files were falling over. As it happened, I realized, this is not a normal aftershock [from another large quake in December 2010]. ... It just kept going. I didn’t know what was going to come down on top of me. Bits of the building were collapsing. It was the scariest moment in my life.

We all ran outside and it was just bricks and dust everywhere. It was chaos. People were just sitting, crying, a lot of people just walking around dazed. It was a shock. People were trying to ring their loved ones. You just didn’t know what to do. You went into survival mode.

I never went back to that office. It was demolished.

What were the immediate needs right after the quake?

We didn’t have water. We didn’t have power. We didn’t have sewage. I made the mistake of not having enough petrol in the car and couldn’t go far enough to get it refilled. At the petrol stations either the tanks were leaking or there was no power to pump petrol.

What has been fixed and what still needs to be fixed?

The roads in eastern Christchurch are still very bumpy, but at least you can drive around. But building has been a bit of a hard process. There are 180,000 homes that need to be repaired in Christchurch and then 40,000 to 60,000 homes in the greater region that need to be repaired as well.

We did have quite a strong building code. But to put it into perspective, our building code used to state that houses had to be strong enough to withstand an earthquake of 0.5 acceleration of gravity -- a typical earthquake like that would be about a 5.5. The Christchurch earthquake was a 6.3, and the real hard volcanic rock from the old volcano accelerated the movement, so we had more than two times the force of gravity shaking the city. That’s four times as much of a shake as they’re designed for.

Downtown, there’s lots of buildings that have yet to come down. Probably about six or seven blocks are under cordon [blocked off]. The only people that are allowed to go into that part of the city are officials or contractors. The rest of the CBD is starting to open up as unsafe buildings are being made safe. But when you go to a bar or a restaurant, it may be the only building around. Rubble and grass are growing around them.

The biggest holdup at the moment is the government, really. Anything major, anything big can’t be rebuilt until the government creates a plan. We can start repairing houses and buildings if your land is in the green areas, which means it’s safe to rebuild on or not likely to have major land damage in any future earthquakes. But the commercial buildings in the CBD need to wait for that plan.

Then we keep having earthquakes. We just had another major earthquake on Dec. 23, two months ago. Every time there’s new earthquakes like that, the authorities have to reassess all the buildings that are up to see if they’re safe.

How have the continued quakes affected people as they try to rebuild?

We’re not used to this. The earthquakes at the moment, the size and the scale, are pretty unprecedented. Earthquake experts are actually learning about what’s happening here. The fault lines we had -- we didn’t know they were here.

We had an earthquake in September 2010, then Boxing Day in 2010 was quite a large earthquake, then the Feb. 22 earthquake. Then there were a few in the fall. Another one was on Dec. 23 last year. Every time, it just makes people really frustrated. People have to get on with their lives. A lot of people feel we’re almost stagnated.

I’ve had three TVs so far that have broken. Every time I buy a new one and strap it or mount it, something else happens and it cracks. Now I’ve got it strapped to steel mounts on the roof. There’s no way my TV is going to break again!

This is the kind of thing that we are having to do. You just don’t know when another earthquake’s going to happen. Every time that happens, we get nervous. The reality is, it might just happen and you have to deal with it.

Where have people relocated while all the building is happening?

A lot of businesses have relocated to the suburbs. Many people have got offices at home, since there aren’t many office spaces available.

The big problem that’s about to happen is the shortage of residential properties. We do have temporary housing for people who were displaced -- prefab housing in recreational parks in the city. But they can’t build houses fast enough to fill up the places people are leaving.

There’s three pressures on the houses: They have to house all the workers who will be brought in to rebuild. There are the residential red zones -- all of those people have to be out of their houses by April 2013. Some people still live there because they can’t find anywhere else to live. Then you’ve got the fact that when the repairs happen, you have to move out for a while.

Despite the problems, it seems that many people stayed. [Statistics New Zealand found the population of Christchurch fell 2.4% four months after the quake.] Why do you think that is?

It’s a little bit of New Zealand pride, I think. We’ve all been through so much together here. You feel a real resilience in saying: “I’ve been through this. Now I want to stay and see my city rebuilt.” Here we have a great opportunity to build a new city.

What do you wish people outside of New Zealand knew about the earthquake?

I think people kind of forget that we’ve been going through this since 2010. It’s quite emotionally and physically draining. Sometimes people say on our website: “Why are people still like this? Why can’t you get on with it?” It’s hard to get on with it when the ground is always moving.

How did it affect you?

In the last year, I’ve probably gone to the bottom of the bottom and haven’t climbed quite out of it. The business that I managed was in the CBD; we looked after advertising for the stadium and malls in Christchurch. Most of them are still shut down. So we had to make the harsh decision. In April we closed the business down.

I was in my last year of studying for a business degree and I had to pull out of that for a period of time because the campus was closed and they relocated us to Lincoln University, which was quite a hassle. I postponed by six months to finish it up. I’m part time now -- I started just yesterday.

My partner was also at the same university, and because of the hassle we ended up breaking up. It was a five-year relationship that went down the tubes. I had a bit of a breakdown.

I had started Rebuild Christchurch after the September 2010 earthquake so people could get information about the recovery in one place. In June, we decided to set up a charity and I decided to work on Rebuild Christchurch full time. I’ve been working on it ever since. It’s not easy. But we’ve got to keep going.


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