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I have just read today’s issue of The Press, Christchurch’s daily newspaper. It doesn’t matter what the date is because each day it is full of calamitous news while the rest of the country seems to have got on with life and be blissfully unaware of just how much we are all going to be affected in the wake of these earthquakes.
Three items from today’s issue have inspired this column. The first is the really serious news that AMI insurance has had such a run of claims that it’s in danger of running out of money. The second item is that another 7,000 chemical toilets are on their way to the eastern suburbs of the city and the third is that the Christchurch City Council is charging demolition companies $200 a tonne to dump the bricks, mortar, splintered timber mixed in with crushed furniture and other detritus from the buildings that are being knocked over, scooped up and taken off to landfill sites. It’s costing more to dump the stuff than it is to demolish the buildings.
These are just three items that I’ve taken at random from a newspaper that is filled with what seems to be a never-ending series of news stories that make incredibly bleak reading.
Unless you feel you are being directly affected, there is a finite time for a news story to be interesting and I get the distinct impression that outside Christchurch, the aftermath of the earthquakes has lost some of its currency. That would be a pity as what happened in Christchurch is going to have a serious impact on all of New Zealand for decades to come.
The same newspaper, also tells me that property sales have begun to move again in Auckland and that prices appear to be on the increase as well — that’s something that will bring some joy to Aucklanders, but no comfort at all to the people of Christchurch.
Of the three items that I’ve quoted above, the future of AMI is obviously something that is going to have yet another major negative impact on the New Zealand economy and joins other items like the restructuring of the Auckland Super City, Pike River, the collapse of South Canterbury Finance and the massive costs of funding the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes themselves.
The second item, the arrival of another 7,000 chemical toilets gives a tiny insight into the ongoing misery of tens of thousands of people in those blighted eastern suburbs. How would you like to live in a damaged home with a chemical lavatory?
I went to Christchurch last week with the intention of spending three nights with family in the eastern suburbs. The family escaped reasonably well. The floor of the house has its ups and downs now, the water still has to be boiled, and the toilet works for number ones, but for number twos it’s either a trip to the communal Port-A-Loo out in the street, or into a plastic bag and then into the rubbish — neither of which is terribly civilised in modern New Zealand. But at least the gusher that appeared in the backyard has stopped running and most of the liquefaction has been removed from the section.
Along with the family visit, I had some business to attend to in Christchurch and I went to a couple of areas of the city where you wouldn’t know that anything had happened. The streets were free of the dreaded grit and sand, the toilets worked, the supermarkets were open and the cafes were serving lattes.
But then you had to make the trek back out to the house in the eastern suburbs. You drove at 20km/h. Progress was slow because it was like driving through the much-quoted “war-zone”. The streets were broken and twisted, the footpaths in a state of upheaval, the concrete guttering wrecked, orange cones and tape impeded progress, there were massive pumps in the middle of the road connected to fat, ugly pipes, there were diggers and workmen, noise and dust. You drove past collapsed or closed shops, many fenced off with “Fahey Fences” where the road was now down to one lane. My favourite fish and chippery was just a corrugated iron roof sitting atop a pile of bricks while the shop next door looked untouched. Piles of bricks from collapsed chimneys sat in untidy heaps outside front gates of houses waiting for someone to come along and take them away.
Whole malls were still closed and fenced off.
One morning, to escape the bleakness, we escaped from the eastern suburbs and west to Poshville — Merivale — but there was no escape. Even here, upmarket shops had lost their street frontages and had been fenced off with the standard-issue “Fahey Fencing”. You looked inside the derelict shops and saw that they were still fully stocked — fashion label clothing hanging in racks, exposed to the weather — and the constant dust from the damned liquefaction.
I visited a mate at his workplace just on the outside of the CBD cordon and he was sitting in his workshop waiting, and hoping, for customers that may never come. In the near distance I could see the towering Grand Chancellor Hotel — surely one of the most unattractive buildings in Christchurch, but made even uglier by the angle it now sits perilously at. How are they going to demolish that?
To be honest, it all got to me. The contrasts between the Christchurch that was still working, the Christchurch which was partly working and the Christchurch which was totally munted, depressed me.
I fled the place after three nights instead of the planned four. I was lucky, I had Chez Dick waiting for me in Oamaru with drinkable water, a toilet that worked 100 percent, stupendous views, shops that were open, roads that were clear and no dust from liquefaction hanging in the air and making my eyes water.
I felt that in the aftermath of the initial huge adrenaline rush that accompanied the February 22nd quake, Christchurch had slipped into a state of malaise.
While there was mounting tension between Christchurch citizens and businesspeople and the bureaucrats on several fronts, there seemed to be no urgency to get something going again. I read a report in The Press by Christchurch Central MP Brendon Burns who seemed to be the only person I was aware of who drew parallels between what happened in 1931 in Napier and Christchurch in 2011. Burns wrote of a temporary shopping complex that was up and running in Napier within weeks of the earthquake there. Some businesses operated from these places for two or three years.
Because there is such a state of vacuum in much of Christchurch and a sense of nowhere to go and nothing to do, I wonder why there’s not been a temporary “strip” set up — cafes, bars and restaurants, operating from temporary premises set up in a cluster in, say, a corner of Hagley Park or somewhere, giving a sense of living and some social focus to the city again.
In Christchurch while many people were trying to be optimistic, there is no avoiding the fact that much of the city is busted and not working. To be frank, much of it is simply terrible. Awful. And before it gets fixed and starts working again there is worse to come. How many houses are going to be demolished, how many people are going to lose their businesses permanently, how many people are going to lose their jobs permanently, how many people are going to have to leave Christchurch to allow a breathing space so that things can start working again? The questions are endless. The biggest question of all is — how on earth is the country ever going to afford to fix this mess?
But, amidst all the gloomy news in the issue of the Press I have read today, there was one note of real joy. Wendy Gilchrist of Clifton Hill writes a letter to the Editor thanking anonymous “Rob”, a farmer from West Melton who drove into stricken Sumner each day with tanks full of drinking water. And even though that initial crisis is now over, it seems that Clifton Hill above Sumer still has no water supply and that Rob still arrives daily. Not too much to call Rob a quiet hero.