As Christchurch reels from what could prove to be New Zealand’s worst natural disaster, a new dread is gripping residents – that their city may never truly recover. More than 50,000 people have fled in the wake of last week’s deadly 6.3-magnitude earthquake, which has left an estimated 240 dead.
While many who have left express a desire to return, others complain there is nothing to stay for. The central business district lies in ruins behind a military cordon. Entire suburbs require relocation. The question hangs heavily over the city: will Christchurch prove a San Francisco, or a New Orleans?
Christchurch, population 380,000, is often described as New Zealand’s second city, but in terms of national and economic prominence that’s never really been the case. This stoic suburban community was just beginning to bounce back from a larger and miraculously non-fatal earthquake last September, which inflicted $4bn worth of damage. Last week’s jolt set the city back a further $16bn-$20bn, and sapped untold reserves of emotional resilience.
The government has declared an unprecedented national state of emergency as it mulls how best to provide financial support and counselling to the afflicted and rebuild the city’s ruptured infrastructure and economy. Funding will likely be pulled from social support programmes to help finance the work. Popular suggestions mooted by the public include introducing “recovery bonds” to raise funds from expatriates, establishing a temporary “replacement CBD” to allow businesses to resume trading, and declaring favourable tax rates to lure companies to the city once it is rebuilt.
Geographer David W Edgington, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, says lessons for Christchurch might be found in the response to the catastrophic Kobe earthquake of 1995. Kobe’s difficult recovery highlighted the need for central government-led planning to take place as quickly as possible. “They have to inject certainty into the situation.” Kobe’s port, once among the busiest in the world, never recovered from the catastrophe, but Japanese authorities funded biotech, to middling success, as a new area of specialisation for the city. Edgington says New Zealand will likely need to similarly identify and support a new industry to underwrite Christchurch’s future.
Equally as important, however, will be maintaining public morale. Kobe boosted spirits throughout its arduous rebuild with spectacular public light shows. With no sign of life from the rubble in more than a week, there’s little cheer in Christchurch these days, although spirits were briefly lifted on Tuesday when time capsules were discovered beneath the toppled statue of a city founder. Displaying all the right instincts, Mayor Bob Parker seized the opportunity to mend battered civic pride by declaring that the parchment, once examined, would likely reveal the “hopes and aspirations” of the city’s founders.
“Is there a better time to have that refreshed?” he asked. “I think it’s miraculous.” As miracles go, it really wasn’t much, but right now the people of Christchurch will take what they can.