Reflecting on a Devastating New Zealand Earthquake and its Impact

The following post is by Bruce Chapman, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT). The opinions expressed are his own.

In the middle of next week, New Zealanders—wherever they are—will pause and mark the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that took place on February 22, 2011.

The South Island’s Canterbury region by that time had already experienced more than 4,400 aftershocks as a result of a larger earthquake in September 2010, centered under the small settlement of Darfield near Christchurch. Aftershocks had become a stressful and persistent reminder of what the community had gone through when that first, early morning 7.1 magnitude quake had thrown Cantabrians from their beds, caused widespread damage, and the loss of a number of significant historic places. But while the community mourned the places they had loved, they could rejoice as well, because that first event caused no loss of life. The community’s energy quickly turned to thoughts of rebuilding and restoring what had been damaged.

February’s busy lunchtime quake was quite different. Along with the 182 people killed, most by building collapse or falling masonry, many more were injured. Much of Christchurch’s buildings and infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. The economic impact has been enormous. In October—as World Monuments Fund announced that the city’s badly damaged Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers had been added to its 2012 World Monuments Watch —estimates suggested the cost of the earthquakes to New Zealand could be as high as 10 percent of GDP. December figures saw damage estimates increase from NZ$15 billion to as high as NZ$30 billion if costs such as rebuilding to higher standards than before the earthquakes are included. That was before another significant quake just prior to Christmas 2011 caused more damage and led to more buildings being demolished.

Even the few remaining highly significant buildings face a less certain future with every quake, which makes the inclusion of the Canterbury Provincial Government Buildings on the WMF Watch so important. Along with highlighting this significant building’s plight, it increases opportunities for securing much needed funding for repairs and restoration at a time when money for earthquake recovery is needed for so many things.

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust nominated this iconic site for inclusion in March 2011. The Category I-registered buildings were built from the late-1850s in a Gothic Revival style in timber and stone as the seat of the Provincial Government of Canterbury. They comprise one of the earliest Gothic Revival complexes of government buildings in the world. The building’s renowned Stone Chamber suffered extensive damage and while ongoing seismic activity is hampering recovery and rebuild attempts, there have been practical steps to reduce further damage and secure the building so work can proceed. The site is busy with cranes and contractors as stonework sections are carefully deconstructed to safe levels and stonework, painted timbers and a range of decorative features are retrieved, documented, and stored to allow for the option of rebuilding with original materials. Hundreds of palettes have already left the site to safe storage.

Weather protection is being put in place as the works progress, and the next stages will focus on securing remnant loose masonry rubble walls that are vulnerable to aftershocks like the one on 23 December that saw some further damage.

Comprehensive laser scans of the buildings occurred last year and will be run again this year to provide an accurate record of remaining building structure. Much of this work is being informed by the insurer’s expert engineers and the NZHPT.

Successive large events, and over ten thousand aftershocks since September 2010, have destroyed too many of Christchurch’s places, eroding its memories and its sense of history. And they aren’t over yet. Resilience, both of the people living there and of the city’s economic future, has also been heavily affected. And that’s why the Canterbury Provincial Government Building continues to be so significant. Maintaining this place will provide not only a connection for the people to their city and its history, it has the potential to make a significant contribution to the area’s future tourism. Just as it did before the quakes began.