Friday, April 8, 2011

Peering into the Abyss: The Red Zone of Christchurch

In a very compelling sense, I never really wanted this.

Under the custodianship of the National Controller and a USAR colleague, I entered the Red Zone today. Frustrated at the political machinations of inter-party politics, I requested a one-on-one visit and, to my surprise, was given it. Adorned with hard hat and jacket, and having signed away my life, in we went.

Today I peered directly into the abyss that is the broken heart of Christchurch.

Along with all others I have seen the photographs that have circumnavigated the world. And I have, since week 1, been in the yellow zone that includes my office and the Art Gallery, almost on a daily basis. I know how crumpled buildings look. I know what it is to sense death among the rubble.

Yet nothing prepares you for the inner city.

It is not the destruction, for not all buildings are (yet) down. It is the scene, the ambience, of pure desolation.

The absence of people, except for grim and determined workers, and uniformed army personnel guarding the intersections.

The tall buildings still standing, but lopsided and doomed. Some 1,000 buildings slated for demolition, large and small. Maybe half the inner city, coming down, over the coming months and years.

It is the silence of the deserted street – except for the leaves rustling in the gutter, the empty coke can rattling down the road.

And it is the inevitable sights – marking the end of a once vibrant and vital city.

The cathedral where Marilyn and I were wed on a chilly but cheerful August day.

The Oxford Baptist Church in which Labour’s Brendon Burns and I co-hosted a public forum last November to re-build Christchurch city following September’s 7.1. The church was severely damaged that day, and we saw it as appropriately symbolic to hold it there. No longer.

The beautiful wooden house behind the church, which was offered to us for one of the break-out groups in that meeting.

The CTV ground area, no longer a building or even rubble, save for the blackened elevator shaft.

The St Elmo apartment building, which took the last week to come down – now simply sky, behind the munted car. Just outside the Red Zone, but no longer standing.

The popular café, which has slumped across its own entrance.

The Grand Chancellor, which taunts your notion of equilibrium, from whichever angle you look.

And, saddest of all for me, the Provincial Chambers, diagonally across the intersection from my office (still cordoned off).

There is talk of keeping it as it is – a memorial to the earthquake. And the CTV building, also perhaps a memorial. Too many deaths, in there, to do anything else.

I know we must move on. We must recover and rebuild. I have the Government’s draft legislation which will be in Parliament next week, and we are formulating our policy on that. And I am organising a series of public forums to engage the public in the process. I am on the cross-party forum that is advising the Minister on the rebuild. I shall be working, unremittingly, to assist in the Christchurch project in coming months and year

But I shall never forget today.