Within hours of Saturday’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Canterbury, streets were flooded by broken water mains and sewage pipes. There were early reports of looting – which turned out later to be a few drunks stealing beer from a liquor shop. Railway lines were bent; whole trees moved by metres; buildings were left faceless and staggering. A state of emergency was declared, suburbs were evacuated and fires broke out as gas and electricity were restored.
In the days since, more than 100 aftershocks – some as big as 5.5 – have further traumatised residents. A cordon remains around the central city as engineers and search and rescue teams secure the area. Fifteen per cent of the city remains without water and all residents are advised to boil water.
Christchurch, New Zealand’s third-biggest city and 40km from the epicentre, is often described as the “Garden City” of New Zealand, known for fine neo-gothic stone buildings and, more recently, for sympathetic renovation of 19th-century brick warehouses. Something like 100,000 buildings were damaged in the quake, 150 or so seriously. Miraculously, no one died.
Demolition has begun on two heritage-listed buildings too dangerous to leave standing. Aerial shots show the fault extending for 22km along the Canterbury Plains, a dead-flat floodplain that hid its existence beneath sandy alluvial soil. When the quake hit, the soil “liquefied” in many places, creating sand volcanoes and leading to uninhabitable buildings. At the time of writing, Treasury estimates had put the cost at NZ$4bn (€2.3bn); at least $500m of that will be to fix the roads alone and economists are predicting a significant boost to GDP from the rebuilding.
But this was not the big one. No one ever seriously expected an earthquake in Christchurch: that honour is reserved for Wellington, the country’s capital and home to almost half a million people, which is uncomfortably built on four major faults and where a major earthquake happens roughly every 150 years. The last was in 1855.
New Zealand sits at the junction of the Pacific and Australian plates: as well as the Wellington fault, the Alpine fault runs up the western side of the South Island, under the Southern Alps. The fault that caused Saturday’s quake, says University of Auckland professor of geology Phil Shane, ran perpendicular to that and at worst, Saturday’s quake is entirely unrelated. “So we’re still just sitting round waiting for the Alpine fault, where there are stresses building up.”
Most residents were still asleep on Saturday morning. An earthquake in Wellington during the morning commute would be catastrophic. Saturday’s quake was similar in size to Haiti’s earlier this year, which killed 250,000 people.
What New Zealanders are now waking up to is that the whole country carries a risk of a major earthquake. “There are parts of New Zealand that are perhaps more prone to seismic activity than others,” says Shane. “But we’re just splitting hairs when you look at the country as a whole.”