Rebuilding Christchurch

Last edited: 16 April 2013

Two years after a series of earthquakes hit New Zealand's third largest city, there are still many reminders around Christchurch of the devastation caused. But, as BP Magazine learns, people are rebuilding the city and their lives

Arriving in Christchurch in darkness, some two years after the earthquakes that rocked New Zealand’s third-largest city, it’s difficult to know what to expect. In February 2011, a relatively shallow quake of 6.3 magnitude struck at lunchtime, killing 185 people in one of the nation’s deadliest peacetime disasters. This came six months after a 7.1 quake in the early hours one morning had already caused significant damage to the city and the surrounding Canterbury region.

With Christchurch no longer under the scrutiny of global media cameras, a visitor wonders how the cityscape will appear and how the recovery is taking shape. A little background research points to a ‘tale of two cities’ – where the western side escaped major impact, while the central business district (CBD) or downtown area and eastern suburbs bore the brunt of the damage.

On the drive into the city suburbs at night from the westerly-located airport, there seems little to remark on, until the sight of steel girders propping up the walls of a church. Daylight reveals the extent of the damage in the central areas, though. Several affected buildings have been removed – leaving an abundance of temporary gravel car parks – others have been made safe but remain out of bounds, behind railings.

The rebuild process is under way but, at the heart of the city, the ‘red zone’ is cordoned off from public access while demolition work takes place. Among the landmarks behind the hoardings is the city’s Anglican cathedral, damaged beyond safe repair. In spite of the continuing physical reminder of the disasters and the ongoing disruption that much of the population faces at home, at work or at school, there is a determination to make the best of the situation.

“People refer to it as ‘the new normal’,” says local resident Greg Hill, Air BP’s manager at Christchurch International Airport. He was convenience retail area manager for the South Island at the time of the quakes. “Life has gradually returned to the CBD: shops and cafés have started to reopen and there is punting on the river again. Scaffolding still holds up many buildings and the debate continues over how best to rebuild and retain some of our heritage.”

While redevelopment is afoot, Kiwi resilience has led to some imaginative uses of shipping containers in the damaged city. Cashel Street Mall – a former shopping hub – has come back to life with a pedestrianised precinct of retailers and food outlets housed in brightly-painted containers. Nearby, a pop-up Nike sports project named ‘Football in the Gap’ has transformed a vacant red-zone space into a five-a-side pitch open to all.
Like many fellow residents, staff at BP’s retail sites in the area have adjusted to circumstances beyond their control. “What is normal changes and you deal with it,” says Craig Whilis, store manager at BP Connect Dallington, who took on the job just 15 days before the February quake. Liquefaction – when saturated soil becomes a liquid – on the forecourt, damage to the shop and lack of power and water closed the petrol station for a week, while the team undertook a clean-up operation.

“It was important to re-open as quickly as possible, once it was safe to do so, to serve the community, including the emergency services, even if it was simply for coffee and a place for people to charge their mobile phones," says Whilis, who was without electricity, water or sewage services at home in the aftermath. "Being at work provided us all with some normality when things were far from normal, otherwise.”

The Dallington site is close to one of the worst affected residential areas: Avonside remains a red zone, where homes will not be rebuilt due to their location on a flood plain. With fewer people living in the vicinity and a drop in traffic on the arterial roads to the CBD, the former 24/7 retail station has reduced its hours, closing during the night now. Yet, with a new investment in the Wild Bean Café, the team is optimistic for 2013.

"It’s set to be a big year in terms of redevelopment and as the CBD comes to life again, there will be more reason for people to use the main road in and out of the centre. There’s been plenty of disruption, but local support has continued and we’re not going anywhere."

On the other side of the Port Hills, which divide the city from its port at Lyttelton, New Zealand Oil Services operates a terminal on behalf of BP and its joint venture partner, Z Energy. A critical supply point for Christchurch, the terminal was taken offline briefly due to power cuts and port restrictions in the immediate aftermath of the February quake, but once all tanks and pipework were tested, operations resumed within four days.

For staff at the terminal, a ‘new normal’ has also emerged, with stories told of extended family remaining as semipermanent house guests and changes in routines prompted by the closure of local facilities. "Most of us continue to live the aftermath every day," says Brent Cook, assistant terminal manager. "The recovery is not immediate, but we're conscious that there are always people worse off than us."

To support the wider Christchurch community, BP’s national network of both company-owned and operated retail sites and dealer sites launched a fundraising appeal in 2011. With customer donations matched by BP, NZ$1 million was passed on to the New Zealand Red Cross.

But, what of other not-for-profit community organisations, when charitable giving is justifiably focused on an emergency? Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLS NZ) represents 73 clubs across the country, whose members patrol the beaches along the 15,000 kilometres (9,320 miles) of coastline, the 10th longest in the world.

No part of New Zealand is farther than 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the water and the nation has one of the highest drowning rates per capita in the OECD – approximately twice that of Australia.
"BP's support helps us to make certain equipment that we need for our ocean conditions available around the country, such as inflatable rescue boats. We have 240 vessels and they are by far the most important device we have."
- Paul Dalton

Surf Life Saving New Zealand

The surf life savers aim to protect the population in the water, not only through services on the beach, but also through education programmes. “Much of our infrastructure is community-funded,“ says Paul Dalton, chief executive of SLS NZ. “The Canterbury quakes placed a huge stress on our clubs in the southern region, where a number have had to deal with severe damage. Obviously, our members have faced challenges personally, as well. The clubs have continued to operate out of temporary facilities that are definitely not ideal.

“Financially, many clubs are still waiting on insurance pay-outs and are just getting themselves back on their feet. With the understandable focus on the Christchurch recovery, it has made our lives a little bit harder.” 

In one of the longest-standing corporate sponsorship roles in New Zealand, BP has supported the surf life savers for more than four decades. “The relationship is extremely significant for us, it dates back to March 1968,” Dalton continues. “It helps with our profile; a 45-year association sends a strong signal to the wider community about our longevity. 

“BP’s support helps us to make certain equipment that we need for our ocean conditions available around the country, such as inflatable rescue boats. We have 240 vessels and they are by far the most important device we have.” 

At Sumner Surf Club, located beachside in a coastal suburb of Christchurch, where crumbling cliff faces still remain cordoned off and partially supported by shipping containers, lifeguards have spent the past two summers operating out of a pop-up shelter on the sand. Their old club house is inaccessible due to quake damage and the rebuild is set to cost more than NZ$1 million. 

“We’ve lost our bird’s eye view of the beach from the patrol balcony,” explains club president Craig Todd. “That makes our job harder and it’s been a battle to keep our members here with minimal facilities. We hope to have the new club ready in time for the start of our summer season this November.”

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