In the early afternoon on February 22, 2011,
Sir Robert Parker was chatting with his assistant out on the balcony patio of his office building in downtown Christchurch. While discussing the day’s meetings, he was also trying to sneak in a quick lunch—a pastrami and cheese sandwich with an espresso coffee.
As mayor of New Zealand’s third most populous city, he had plenty of work to do. At that time, the city was recovering from a 7.3-magnitude earthquake that damaged some buildings and caused a few injuries six months earlier.
“We regarded that earthquake as the big one,” Parker said. “We’d had that.”
The sense of security shared by Parker and many of the people in Christchurch vanished at 12:51 p.m.
At that time, the back wall of the patio slammed into Parker’s chair, propelled him into the air and cracked several of his ribs. His assistant levitated a couple meters (several feet) above the building before the vibrations of the quake sent the floor back upwards at 2.2 times the force of gravity.
“It was 25 seconds of sheer and absolute and utter violence that came out of absolutely nowhere,” Parker said. “We went from a normal day to, in 25 seconds, as I looked out over the city from my balcony, what was obviously a battle scene as if the city had been under severe artillery rocket fire.”
Parker and his assistant were among the last of 1,200 people evacuated from the building. Once on the street, he began to make sense of what was happening to Christchurch.
Clouds of dust signaled that structures had collapsed into piles of rubble. The incessant blaring of car alarms and building sirens in the distance indicated that destruction could be expected well beyond the immediate field of view.
Puddles of murky, muddy water expanding in the middle of the street meant liquefaction had taken place. The solid ground on which the city was built suddenly ebbed during the quake.
Kiwis are no strangers to seismic events, so this understanding of earthquakes is not unique to public officials in New Zealand. The country is situated on the boundary where two tectonic plates collide with huge amounts of force, responsible for creating New Zealand’s trademark stunning mountain landscapes, as well as the destructive earthquakes that rock the island nation.
Even though Christchurch had many measures in place to withstand seismic events, the 2011 quake had several characteristics that nobody expected. The epicenter—where the earthquake originated—was extremely close to the city and only 5 km (3 miles) below the surface. Buildings in Christchurch were well suited to handle horizontal shaking, but the February earthquake pushed the ground up and down violently, causing many structures to fail.
“All of our preparation, all the scientific analysis, said this event should not take place,” Parker said. “So much for analysis. So much for predictions.”
The earthquake caught the city off-guard and presented an overwhelming amount of physical challenges. People lost basic power and water service. Bridges and roads were rendered impassable. The cell towers that survived were overloaded and operating on reserve battery power, meaning only six or seven hours of spotty service.
“Nothing in your life has prepared you for it,” Parker said. “Normality goes out the window and it becomes very obvious that for an unknown period in the future, life as you know it does not exist.”
As people began to get over the initial shock of the event, the unprecedented recovery of Christchurch began to take shape, molded primarily by the community itself.
In the short term, people responded by focusing on those around them. There were several stories of individuals pulling others out of piles of rubble or crushed vehicles. Neighbors checked in with each other and shared the resources they had.
The 2011 earthquake resulted in New Zealand’s first ever national state of emergency. Relief poured in from outside the city in the form of food and water, as well as mobile shower and laundry facilities.
Eventually, response shifted toward recovery and the community began to build its own future while dealing with the stress and anxiety of persistent aftershocks.
“I don’t think people who were not here will ever understand,” Parker said. “They know that there was a big quake. What they don’t know is that there were thousands and thousands of aftershocks. Each time one of those hit, your mind told you it could be worse than the one that we experienced on the 22nd.”
One older woman who Parker checked on described the unpredictable aftershocks as “worse than the Blitz,” referring to the bombing of London she had experienced in her youth.
Because of the aftershocks, people in Christchurch frequently gathered in outdoor spaces such as Hagley Park—the largest urban, open space in the city. Away from buildings or structures that could cause any more harm, these gatherings resulted in spontaneous concerts and other performances.
Young, creative people especially contributed to the communal nature of Christchurch following the disaster. Cardboard and other scrap materials were turned into impromptu dance stages, where people could plug in music to amplifiers and dance on previously disheartening sites of demolition.
Damaged refrigerators were repurposed into weatherproof bookshelves and moved into locations throughout the city, forming a network of free lending libraries.
The most permanent response from the creative community was the street art. Colorful murals can still be seen throughout the city, giving Christchurch its own personality communicated via aerosol paint.
“People enjoyed that feeling of being creative and we gave the community—they would have probably taken it anyway—the opportunities to use their spaces,” Parker said. The sense of powerlessness that you feel after these events is really important to recognize and people need to take control back.”
By Christopher Chase Edmunds
Several years after the earthquake, Parker sits in a conference room on the first floor of the New Urban Group office. He is no longer the mayor of Christchurch, but like many in the city, his experiences during that time affect his daily life.
“The worst thing is a kind of a post-traumatic game that your brain plays,” he said. “I can sit in a room and I can totally imagine the room in an earthquake. … This is not unique to me, but I can see this room collapsing and feel this building collapsing on me.”
As with any catastrophe, the fears that became reality for people in Christchurch will be difficult to overcome. But the city is moving forward with momentum. The population has been restored to pre-earthquake totals as people have either returned or chosen Christchurch as a place to settle.
Lessons learned from 2011 have influenced new building codes and the social landscape is also being restored.
“We’re getting a safe place back,” Parker said. “We’re also starting to lose some of that grassroots cohesion we had at that time as normality takes over. Some people see that as a loss, but equally they’re happy to see the structure of society being rebuilt physically and socially.”
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things are still writing the story of Christchurch. Life has become more stable and comfortable over the years, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Any discussion with Parker about what the future holds for the city elicits a common refrain from the former mayor:
“Never underestimate your people.”