I returned recently from another week in Christchurch, where I walked for many hours just looking. At first glance, particularly from a car, the damage does not seem great. Here and there blocks of shops destroyed, the occasional house shaken beyond repair and open to the sky, as seen on TV. But what strikes you is that most buildings seem untouched, apart from patches of blue on roofs covering gaps where chimneys once stood.
By foot you get a different picture. Walking gives you an opportunity to peer beyond fences and hedges to the countless walls of glossy black felt tacked on to framing. Or, where builders have called back to apply a firmer stage of temporary cover, treated plywood. Seeing so many damaged homes makes you wonder what you can’t see.
The cost of repair to the breaks and buckles in the roads alone does not bear thinking about, never mind what is beneath the roads. Water seeps over footpaths from broken pipes. Old pipes, the kind of pipes that most cities have. Pipes that probably would have been replaced had there not been more urgent need of city funds. There is the worrying thought that for every pipe that is fixed another will be broken by the next aftershock.
Drying heaps of liquefaction are scattered around the place like mine tailings. Some, still being cleared from sections and roads, smell of sewerage.
One evening my daughter and I walked up some of the main streets to the barriers preventing entry to the city centre. We walked in the middle of the road because we could. There was no traffic, all was strangely quiet. Some of the houses and flats were occupied and some abandoned, a trail of rubble outside for the Council to pick up when they have time. Bricks from chimneys and fire walls, treasured volcanic stone from collapsed garden walls, many old televisions that had as one crashed to the floor at that fatal hour, and smells from the contents of powerless fridges.
The barriers were manned by four soldiers, two burly Kiwis and two slender Singaporeans, all working twelve-hour shifts guarding the city. They welcomed the distraction of a chat. They were young boys really, making the most of the opportunity to improve international relations while performing a boring duty. But young or not, their presence deterred the looters.
Christchurch has more than its share of prisons. People tend to fear criminals breaking out and doing their worst but the more common problem is that on release, instead of returning to their home town, they stay. A friend of my daughter’s has a neighbour she would like to see back in prison or exported. When the earthquake occurred he stabbed the air with glee shouting: “Yay! Rooting! Looting!” Such remarks make you feel like defecting to another species, but in the meantime we give thanks for those bored soldier boys whose contribution will probably never be truly appreciated.