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Monday, February 28, 2011

Keeping the Faith

Keeping the faith as city loses its symbols

ONE of the savage ironies of the New Zealand earthquake is that a city named Christchurch has abruptly lost so many of its churches.

To walk through the city streets is to see, not a town in ruins, but one selectively wrecked. It is not, for the most part, a landscape of broken glass and twisted steel. Rather, the clean-up of Christchurch will be counted in bricks -- Victorian-era bricks and stones that have spilled from the walls of the town's most treasured buildings, and nearly all its oldest churches.

Among those destroyed, either partially or entirely, are St Luke's Anglican, Knox Presbyterian, Durham Street Methodist and Christchurch's most famous of all, the Anglican cathedral.

The dean of the Christchurch Cathedral, Peter Beck, says he is not fussed about the stones and mortar of his church, including the landmark spire that slipped from its 200-year-old perch with devastating consequences.

As Beck points out, his concerns rest with the estimated 22 souls, whose bodies lie broken and still unclaimed beneath the rubble. With so many dead now confirmed, and perhaps more still unaccounted for beneath the pancaked floors of the Canterbury Television and Pyne Gould Guinness buildings, Christchurch is more concerned for its people than a steeple.

Yet already, talk is turning to how Christchurch should rebuild and whether this disaster, while unavoidable, was aggravated by a failure to take harder decisions against old, cherished buildings badly shaken in the September quake. As Prime Minister John Key remarked this week, the city has no choice now but to face these questions.

"It is quite clear that there will be a major rebuild and the centre of Christchurch will have a very different feel to it in years to come," he said.

There are three unmistakable symbols in the heart of Christchurch that represent how this old, graceful town, modelled to the same civic design as Adelaide, has forever changed.

The first is the collapsed spire and substantial damage to Christchurch Cathedral. The second is the statue of Christchurch founder John Robert Godley, which now lies prone in the middle of the town's main square. The third is the doomed Grand Chancellor Hotel, built 26 storeys high, in the middle of Christchurch.

Former mayor Gary Moore runs a bar in the heart of the city's historic district and watched from the Worcester Boulevard Bridge as the town shook, people panicked and the Christchurch Cathedral spilled its spire.

"It was surreal," he told Inquirer from his central Christchurch home. "In my mind, I have got a frozen shot of it just hanging in the air. It toppled over and there was an enormous cloud of dust, and it was all over."

Like so many of Christchurch's residents, Moore had an immediate, intimate connection to the disaster. His son Johnny was tending bar when the quake struck. As the ceiling collapsed on top of him, Johnny Moore managed to run to safety. He saw a body in the street, grabbed a motorbike he was restoring with his dad, and drove it unlicensed, unregistered and without a helmet -- waved on by police -- straight home.

As Gary Moore recounted: "He was so traumatised, everybody is panicking and you are in among a bunch of old, brick buildings."

Moore ran Christchurch for nearly 10 years until 2007. If it were up to him, a new Christchurch would be built of wood rather than stone and bricks, and with three-storey limits on new developments.

As we sit in the loungeroom of his old weatherboard house, another sizeable aftershock rocks the bearers on their stumps before they settle back into place. "This house is like an old belly dancer," he says. "This old girl flops and moves around."

Moore isn't advocating that Christchurch go back to the future. Rather, he is excited by emerging, flexible building materials such as laminated wood, which on some measures are claimed to be stronger than steel.

The New Zealand media had many stories of amazing escapes. The New Zealand Herald recounted the experience of two men who escaped serious injury when the ceiling collapsed around them at the local pub -- only to find their car outside crushed by bricks and an entire wall, including windows and curtains, of a neighbouring building.

A couple travelling into the town of Lyttelton had just got out of their car to admire the view when the quake struck, then turned to find huge boulders from the cliffs above the road had flattened the car they'd just exited.

But another man reportedly trying to make it back from Christchurch to his family in Lyttelton after the main quake had struck was hit by falling rocks during an aftershock and killed instantly.

In central Christchurch at the Grand Chancellor, supervisor Jovy Servitillo was on the 23rd floor of what is the tallest building in Christchurch. The quake demolished the hotel stairwell and left a gaping hole, trapping her for five hours in the dark with hotel guests. "We could feel the building sinking. It was so terrifying," Servitello told the Herald.

She told the newspaper she texted family members to say she was alive and to alert rescue teams. A crane winched a platform up to the group, who squeezed through a crack in the wall to reach the waiting arms of rescuers high above the streets.

Local mall worker Tom Brittenden told of helping to pull victims from the rubble in the immediate aftermath.

"There was a lady outside we tried to free with a child," Brittenden told New Zealand national radio. "A big bit of concrete or brick had fallen on her and she was holding her child. She was gone. The baby was taken away."

Hundreds of troops, police and emergency workers raced against time and aftershocks that threatened to collapse more buildings.

They picked gingerly through the ruins, poking heat-seeking cameras into gaps between tumbles of bricks and sending sniffer dogs over concrete slabs.

Teams rushed in from Australia, the US, Britain and Japan and elsewhere in Asia, along with a military field hospital and workers to help repair power, water and phone lines that were damaged in all corners of the city.

Christchurch's airport reopened on Wednesday, and military planes were brought in to fly tourists to other cities.

Officials told people to avoid showering or even flushing toilets, saying the damaged sewerage system was at risk of failing. School classes in the city were suspended, and residents advised to stay home.

The NZPA news service reports the earthquake could cost the country up to $NZ16billion ($12bn) and trigger a fall in the cost of money by half a percentage point as authorities make sure the earthquake does not crush the national economy.

But Key and Finance Minister Bill English said the government could absorb the cost of the earthquake, and credit rating agency Moody's Investors Service said there was no need to reconsider the country's Aaa credit rating.

Key has thanked other countries for support. "I would like to pay special acknowledgement to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her announcement of a $5 million donation to help with the recovery," he said. British Prime Minister David Cameron had contacted him several times.

Christchurch CBD is closed, bringing business to a halt. "They are going to want to operate, the question is what happens to them and do they go and relocate in another part of the city for a while, can they accommodate themselves in another part of New Zealand, but then what happens to those people (staff)," said Key.

Meanwhile Christchurch can expect further earthquake aftershocks for a year, and Wellington faces a higher risk of a bigger quake, according to an Australian seismologist.

"I think there will be lots of aftershocks around Christchurch for about a year," says Kevin McCue, director of the private Australian Seismological Centre.

"But they won't be as big as the latest one. They are likely to get smaller and less frequent."

The Canberra-based seismologist, also an adjunct professor at Central Queensland University, says the big question for New Zealand is what impact this week's quake will have on the boundary between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, which runs up the west coast of the South Island, across Cook Strait, under Wellington and up the east coast of the North Island.

"It's got to have some impact," McCue says. "Geological activity is chaotic. It's impossible to predict all three elements -- place, magnitude and time -- but it tends to occur in clusters. If you have one (quake) it ups the hazard. This quake has the potential to load up the plate boundary, increasing the likelihood of a quake at Wellington. Wellington has always been considered much more at risk (than Christchurch) because it straddles the plate boundary."

New Zealand's reputation as the "shaky isles" springs from its location near the bottom of the 40,000km seismic horseshoe knows as the "Pacific ring of fire".

The ring, fired by the movement of the plates that make up the Earth's crust, embraces 452 volcanoes and is home to about 90 per cent of all earthquakes and 80 per cent of the largest ones.

Earthquakes around the ring of fire can cause large numbers of casualties and severe property damage in heavily populated areas such as Kobe in Japan, where a 1995 quake killed more than 5000 people.

This week's quake even shook off a huge chunk of ice from the country's biggest glacier, about 200km east of Christchurch.

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