Australian Geographic

When a city rises

THAT FEBRUARY 2011 earthquake, which struck during the city’s lunch hour, was the most destructive in a series. It was the one that broke so many of the Central Business District’s verticals and horizontals – its buildings and the roads, sewers, water and gas pipes. It was shallow and ferocious. Its peak vertical ground acceleration of 2.2G (more than twice the acceleration of gravity) momentarily lifted parts of Christchurch to the sort of face-distorting speeds astronauts experience when they ascend into space.

It wasn’t the biggest quake in its series. Five months earlier, there’d been a 7.1-magnitude tremor centred 45km west of Christchurch that damaged the city. But 22 February was different. It was magnitude 6.3, smaller than the previous quake, but the epicentre was just 6km south of the city and even on an international scale it was very violent. Two multi-storey buildings in the CBD pancaked and the low-rise masonry in older parts of the city centre cascaded onto the streets.

The steeple and bell tower of Christ Church Cathedral collapsed into the square, and its whole front face and beautiful rose window – the spiritual and symbolic face of Christchurch itself – teetered, and would later collapse onto the entrance portico, opening the nave to wind and weather, and the pigeons of Cathedral Square.

The February quake killed 185 and triggered an immediate state of local emergency that gave top-down control to civil defence. Then emergency legislation in April 2011 changed it to a state of national emergency that shifted top-down control to a Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, and appointed a Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA).

That absolute control by the minister and his department proved to be right and proper, for as the years went by, the government would spend more than $14 billion of New Zealand taxpayers’ money on the Christchurch recovery and

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