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. Thanks for all the photos Amanda! What huge devastation still remains. Many people realized how bad it was but I don’t think you really understand until you’ve walked around. Thanks for sharing this with us and glad you got to tour some of these areas with John. Here’s hoping that the city does recover!

      I agree that it doesn’t really hit you until you see it for yourself. It was such a sobering experience, but I’m glad I got to have it. I can now appreciate what’s going on there a lot more.

      I hope the city recovers, too – and quickly!

    Wow, it must have been very difficult to go back and see it so differently now. Thanks for keeping us up to date and getting the word out. Cheers!

      It was indeed difficult. But I think it’s important to be aware of the aftermath of events like this! Japan will have an even harder time, I’d imagine.

      Thanks for reading!

    Thanks for sharing your impressions of Christchurch. It is sad to see these pictures and how long it takes for a city to recover from this event. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, but your account of your tour through the city is very insightful and moving.

      Thank you, Christina. It’s going to take a long time for the city to bounce back from this. But I think it will. The people of Christchurch are tough! But I hope this post can help people appreciate the extent of the damage there, and how difficult it’s going to be to get back to “normal.”

    Great photos Amanda. You’ll be interested to know that we move out of our home today, so the builders can come in to repair it! The family will stay in a hotel for the month, while I swan around Europe!!!

      Oh wow, a month?? I’m sure it’ll be weird for them! But I’m also sure it’ll be nice to get your house back to normal.

      Thanks again so much for the tour. It was good for me to see it all, especially since this was essentially the reason I ended up in NZ this time around!

    I’m glad you got to see the City as it is now. It is almost a pilgrimage. The few times I have been to the perimeter of the cordon, what touches me is the knots of people standing at each road block, remembering, reminiscing and grieving.

      The word “pilgrimage” is so perfect in this instance. That’s exactly what it felt like. And I’m glad I got to experience it, as difficult as it was to see.

    I recognise the church, and the Arts Centre where I worked in 1986 (with the tower on the ground in front of it). But I too was impressed with the spirit of the Cantabrians when I was there a week after the tragedy. They’ll get there!

      Most of the ruined buildings are still recognizable, at least, though I get the feeling this makes it even harder for the locals, who have to look at them and remember them as they used to be.

      But the spirit and attitude there is just amazing. I’m going to be writing about that next!

    Great pictures, but so sad to see. Thanks for letting us know what’s going on there. I spent two weeks in Christchurch and the South Island, leaving one week before the earthquake. It’s so hard to look at the photos I took because everything has changed forever, but the people there are nice, strong, and will stick together. Christchurch will be back.

      Oh wow, yeah, so you would have seen the city right before it got all “munted.” So sad. It was important for me to see it, though, since the whole Blog4NZ campaign was on Christchurch’s behalf. I won’t say I enjoyed seeing all the damage, but I think I can now better appreciate what people are going through there.

    Its really a shivering experience to go through these pictures and thinking of the people who were in the midst of the earthquake. After seeing the pictures I really thank God that we are safe till now and pray to the almighty for a quick recovery of the people who has suffered the earthquake.
    One thing that came to my mind after reading your post is that “Whatever we do or how much advance may we be in science today, we are still a piece of toy to the nature. There is always a limit beyond which man cannot go…”

      I hate thinking of the people who were in these buildings at the time of the earthquake. Or (perhaps even worse), the people who were in the downtown area at the time and watched all these buildings crumble to the ground. I can’t even fathom what that must have been like.

      But you’re right that there are some things – like Mother Nature – that we just cannot outwit.

        Being there was horrible. I will never forget the sight of a brick wall toppling straight towards me. I really appreciate you posting this so that those who weren’t there can get a small understanding of what it was like.

          I can’t even imagine, Adulcia. I’m glad you’re okay, but I’m sure that is a sight that will haunt you for the rest of your life. It sounds like you’re very lucky!

          I’m so glad that you are appreciative of this post. I knew it was something I had to share, not only for myself, but for all those out there who (like me) can’t even fathom what it must have been like to be there during the quake. I hope I’ve shed at least a little light on it for others.

    Sobering photos, but I am really glad you focused on them. Too often we tend to quickly forget the devestation of a situation with the quick passage of time. Thanks.

      I agree – we think that as soon as a big disaster like this is out of the news (or is eclipsed by even bigger disasters elsewhere in the world) that it means things are magically “better.” Sure, bad things are happening elsewhere, too, but it doesn’t diminish the damage in Christchurch, or make it any easier on the people living there. As soon as I heard I’d won one of the Blog4NZ prizes, I knew that Christchurch was going to be one of the places I’d visit, so that I could show this aftermath side of it. If we want to consider ourselves citizens of the world, we have to be aware of things like this happening everywhere.

    there is the church, I should of waited before I wrote my comment on the other post 🙂
    So sad, but I am glad that they seem to be finally able to pick up the pieces, I can’t believe they are still having lots of after shocks.

      The aftershocks are definitely far from over. I’d say there’s one large enough to feel at least every other day. It’s probably partly because there are two different techtonic plates near Christchurch that are moving now. I really hope they settle down soon!

    This post actually made me tear up a little bit. Although, as travelers, I think that we try to keep in mind what is going on in different parts of the world it’s still easy to convince yourself that things are getting better since you aren’t seeing them on the news anymore.

    I read a story in Cosmo actually about a woman whose office building collapsed during the earthquake, three days before her wedding. I am almost certain that it’s the building with “help” written in your photo. It is really scary to try to imagine what it must have been like to be there on that day. I can imagine it’s even more chilling when you are actually there looking at what remains.

    You did a lovely job on this post and your pictures really helped tell the story.

      Thank you so much, Leigh. In this case, I knew the photos could say much more than any of my words could.

    Thanks for this report Amanda…Really interesting photos – have to say I’m not surprised that the city doesn’t look much different three months on. We just remember being in the North Island and watching endless news footage of the destruction just after the quake. It will definitely take much more time to heal Christchurch’s wounds…

      You’re very welcome, Andrea. It will indeed take a lot of time to heal Christchurch’s wounds. Most people living there figure it will take years – maybe even a decade – before the city is completely rebuilt. It doesn’t help that there are still frequent strong aftershocks, either!

    Really terrible, your post give a good idea of how the situation is now. I hope they will recover soon.

      It was tough to see some of this. I, too, hope they can bounce back quickly! They certainly have the resolve to, though.

    New Zealand feels like a second homeland for me, even though we only lived there for half a year. Very sad about Christchurch, but good thing Kiwis are resilient people.

      It feels like a second home to me, too, which is why this has made me so sad. But you’re right about Kiwis being very resilient – they’ll be okay!

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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 ..so quiet and beautiful

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

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Incredibly powerful post. Fantastic. Thank you.

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

    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.

    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!

    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.

    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.

    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. 🙁

    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!

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    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!

    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.

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

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