Year after earthquake in Christchurch, pace of recovery is slow

Two participants embrace at a memorial service at Hagley Park in the New Zealand city marking the anniversary of the magnitude-6.1 earthquake.
Two participants embrace at a memorial service at Hagley Park in the New Zealand city marking the anniversary of the magnitude-6.1 earthquake. (GREG BOWKER / New Zealand Herald)

1,400 downtown buildings were irreparably ruined, but many still stand. Basic infrastructure is still unrepaired.

Posted: February 23, 2012

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - As families of the 185 people killed in the Christchurch earthquake marked Wednesday's one-year anniversary of the disaster, signs of a city still broken were all around them.

Hundreds of wrecked buildings downtown are waiting to be torn down so reconstruction can begin in earnest - many of them within sight of the morning ceremony at Latimer Square.

The slow pace of recovery is drawing criticism from residents and developers as it wears at the reputation of Mayor Bob Parker, who was praised in the days after the quake for his leadership and for calmly articulating the pain and frustration many were feeling.

"There are many unknowns, there are questions still to be answered, suburbs to be rebuilt, and a city to be rebuilt," Parker said at a larger ceremony later Wednesday in North Hagley Park. "We've had our differences, creative and otherwise. But that is not who we really are."

Wednesday was a day of reflection amid what has become a battle between city leaders and many Christchurch residents and developers.

More than 10,000 people stood in silence, some in tears, at the park while police and firefighters read out the full list of victims. That was followed by two minutes of silence marking the time the magnitude-6.1 quake struck.

The earthquake destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings, leaving $25 billion in damage by the government's estimate.

About 1,400 downtown buildings there were irreparably damaged, and many still stand. Basic downtown infrastructure such as the sewage system has yet to be repaired, and vital decisions about where to locate major structures in a new-look city - including a proposed sports stadium, library, and conference center - remain incomplete.

Many question whether Parker and council members have what it takes to lead the city through the rebuilding.

"The council is seen as being at war with the community and with businesses," said Hugh Pavletich, a developer and city critic.

To be sure, continuing aftershocks and balking insurers have held back the rebuilding. But the political infighting hasn't helped.

New Zealand's government recently appointed an observer to oversee what it describes as the "dysfunctional" council. Earlier this month, several thousand Christchurch residents took to the streets, demanding that the mayor, council members, and senior officials resign.

Christchurch developer Angus McFarlane said he now expected the commercial core of the city would take 10 years to rebuild and would contain just 30 percent of the retail and office space it did before the quake. He said he was unsure whether he would reinvest in the city.

Despite the concerns, residents and businesses have stayed in numbers that have surprised many.

When Statistics New Zealand measured Christchurch's population four months after the quake, it found the population had declined by just 2.4 percent, to 368,000, despite the loss of more than 5,000 homes.

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