Christchurch Shipping Container Shopping Center Cover

First-Hand Experience of the 2011 Earthquake & Christchurch’s Recovery

February 4, 2016

Our very own New Zealand travel expert, Sally Lilley, was living and working in Christchurch, New Zealand before, during and after a major earthquake hit. As we are approaching the 5 year anniversary of the quake, we asked Sally to reflect on her experience and how Christchurch managed to bounce back to once again become a popular tourist destination.

The following is Sally’s first-hand account of her experience:

The lead up to February 2011

Little is said about the earthquakes in September and December of 2010, just before Christchurch’s big quake in February. The earthquake in September was a massive 7.1 on the Richter scale and came out of the blue for everyone in Canterbury as nothing was known about the fault lines running beneath Christchurch that caused it. Some believe a second quake on Boxing Day and then February 22nd were in fact just aftershocks of this initial event.

The main areas affected in September were more rural with Canterbury farmers the worst hit, however it was a wakeup call for everyone in Christchurch with some buildings in the city weakened. After Boxing Day, everyone was getting used to the idea of earthquakes and everyone was on a higher state of readiness.

February 22nd, 2011

It started off like any normal day at work. I was on the 10th floor of an office building in the city centre, and was back at my desk after lunch.

When it hit, I half jumped and was half thrown to the floor of the office. The lights went out almost immediately, ceiling tiles dropped and a book case toppled onto me. It only lasted 24 seconds, but felt much longer.

Once everything had settled, the ten of us in the office made for the stairwell. It was there you could see the huge cracks running through the building and you could see how serious it all was.

In February, the epicentre of the quake was much closer to the city and only 6km deep, which was the main reason for the extent of the damage across the city. Ultimately, the damage to my office building was such that it had to be pulled down.

Gathering with others in the street, everyone rallied around to help whoever they could.

I eventually made it back to my house at 7pm where aftershocks were still rumbling. I think there must have been around 50 in the few days that followed.

Immediately after the earthquake

The first thing that struck me straight after the quake was the support, and skills, that the volunteer services brought immediately on the ground. In New Zealand, much of the fire, and other services, are volunteer led, and these off duty heroes dotted around the city just picked up the nearest high-vis jacket, took up the mantle and got on with it.

Since I’d arrived in 2003 there were TV ads about being prepared. I think it is just part of the Kiwi mentality to be ready for anything. With that, and everyone pre-warned after the September and Boxing Day events everyone was more aware and better prepared.

The start of the recovery also saw the strength of Christchurch’s human spirit shine through. The student army helping to clear silt and mud caused by liquefaction; farmers coming into the city with tankers of water; and residents opening up their houses to strangers.

Re-building the new Christchurch

Christchurch Shipping Container Shopping Center

After the initial period, everyone was coming to terms with what had happened whilst maintaining a resemblance of normality.

The first signs of new life, and creative thinking, came into the city came in the form of the shipping container shopping street. It took just three months to complete, opening in November, and was a project that everyone from Christchurch could rally around and gave somewhere for the tourists to aim for in the city centre

In true New Zealand style, whilst other functional buildings were also being reconstructed and repaired, the second major project was to create a temporary rugby stadium so that the local team, the Crusaders, could return to the city.

With over 1700 buildings in the city centre down alone there was a lot of empty spaces. A group of volunteers called ‘Gap Filler’ took up the role of filling spaces with interesting things. Whether a pedal powered outdoor cinema or an old fridge book exchange. Huge murals or small gardens created on wasteland. There is a legacy to these projects still dotted around the city, which I think will remain part of the fabric of the city forever more.

Christchurch for me now represents a modern New Zealand. It’s a quirky, cool city that encourages creativity but still proud of its heritage. But really, Christchurch is much more than that. It’s about the everyday people of the city who have helped shape it and who are proud to call it home