Dangerous aftershocks have left the battered city of Christchurch struggling to rebuild 12 months after a devastating earthquake and raised doubts about its economic future.
Much of the downtown area was destroyed and remains sealed off following the magnitude 6.3 quake on Feb. 22 last year, which killed 185 people as it flattened office blocks, buckled roads and brought historic buildings crashing down.
Hotels and shops lie empty behind the wire-mesh fences of the “red zone,” which covers most of the central business area — a ghost town of broken buildings and vacant lots with weeds poking out from exposed foundations.
The only sound of activity from within is the crash of rubble being dumped into skips as workers still toil to clear debris from the historic precinct that was once the pride of New Zealand’s second-largest city.
Plans are afoot for a NZ$30 -billion (US$24.5 billion) rebuilding program, the largest construction effort in the country’s history, to restore Christchurch to its former glory as capital of the South Island.
However, constant seismic activity has frustrated the effort, with about 10,000 aftershocks recorded since September 2010, when a magnitude 7.0 quake on a previously unknown fault line began what has become a trial of endurance for the city.
No one was killed in that quake and reconstruction was well under way before the deadly February quake hit — lower in magnitude, but shallower and with an epicenter much closer to the city center’s already weakened buildings.
Since then, there have been major aftershocks in June and December, the most recent sending terrified Christmas shoppers fleeing from stores in panic and adding more damage to the scarred city, further delaying reconstruction.
More than 60 percent of the old buildings that defined -Christchurch, creating what locals called “a little slice of England,” have been lost and many more are severely damaged and need expensive reinforcement.
Win Clark of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering said most, with the possible exception of landmark buildings such as the Anglican cathedral, would not be rebuilt because of the danger they posed.
Some have suggested simply shifting the entire central business district elsewhere to more stable ground, but Clark said that was impractical.
“The problem there is that there’s a very large investment in infrastructure — buildings, water supply, power, sewerage, all types,” he said. “It’s been damaged, but to build a new city you would have to start over again from scratch at colossal cost.”