Then and now: How the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes changed the city

7:31 pm on 20 February 2021

As residents mark the anniversary of the 22 February earthquakes, RNZ takes a look at what has become of the city in the past 10 years.

The 6.3 magnitude quake hit in the afternoon followed by strong aftershocks, killing 185 people, and causing widespread destruction across the city.

Since its establishment between 1864 and 1904, ChristChurch Cathedral has suffered extensive damage in numerous quakes over the years, with the 2011 quake delivering a lethal blow. But subsequent quakes that same year also caused the west wall, containing the rose window, to collapse.

Now there is work underway to restore the cathedral, which is expected to take at least seven-and-a-half years.

Kerri was out shopping with her family in Cathedral Square when the quake struck. She filed her story to the Quake Studies:

"The force of the initial jolt flung me to the ground. I held onto the stroller and yelled at my mum and eldest daughter to get down. We held onto the ground as the earthquake struck in waves. I was side on to the Cathedral to my left and the Grant Thorndon building to my right. I remember hearing a crack like a tree being felled, turning and to my horror seeing the Cathedral's spire fall. I knew at that point how catastrophic this earthquake was."

The city had to be divided into four zones - green zone, orange zone, white zone, and red zone - to separate quake-risk and damaged suburbs and streets.

Concrete and brick buildings were some of the most affected, with more than 100,000 buildings damaged and about 10,000 buildings needing to be demolished. More than half of the buildings demolished were in the central business district.

At the Manchester-Lichfield Street junction, Adam was sitting at a barbershop about to get his hair cut when the shaking started. He filed his story to Quake Studies.

"The lights immediately went out, the back room where the cuts took place in almost complete darkness and the barber and I dived to the floor, mirrors and pictures began to fall around us. Seconds later the rumble stopped so we jumped up and moved to the front section of the shop, another aftershock so again we dropped to the floor.

"Outside was staggering to see, in all directions there were collapsed buildings, dust clouds, huge piles of rubble, multiple building and car alarms sounding, zombie like people stood with looks of amazement, and screams from trapped people..."

The CBD was cordoned off in the aftermath, with some streets staying off limits for several years after.

David Nobes says he had gathered with others at the corner park between Manchester, Lichfield, and High streets.

"We all noticed lights flashing from beneath the rubble from a collapsed building front on Manchester Street. It was a taxi that had been buried in the earthquake!"

A couple of streets away from Manchester St (pictured above) was RNZ's former Chester Street West office. An RNZ reporter recording a telephone interview in a studio on the day the earthquake struck can be heard scrambling to safety in a 2011 episode of The Vault.

Presenter Deborah Nation says she could not believe how short it was. "I swear I was under my desk, noting the fact that a filing cabinet was hitting my head and I needed to turn around, noting that I was relatively calm ... noting that glass was building up on the carpet under my nose like oversized hail stones, noting that the noise was both sharp and percussive but also a deep earthly roar, and noting that it either wasn't going to end or it was."

She says on the drive back home, "the city was disintegrating in front of my eyes".

The RNZ office space in Christchurch has since relocated to Cashel St.

The Forsyth Barr Building, now known as the Crowne Plaza Christchurch, was located on the intersection of Armagh and Colombo Streets. In the aftermath of the quake, those inside became trapped when the stairwell collapsed.

Kris, who was working inside the building at the time, filed his story to the Quake Studies:

"The air inside our building was filled with dust (which I assume came from the collapsed stairwells). We opened the balcony doors, and were hit by the smell of more dust from outside, and by the sound of car alarms and building alarms sounding all over the city.

"Armagh Street to the West looked badly warped in places, and I could see that some of the Court buildings had collapsed.

"I could also see that building frontages had collapsed on both sides of Colombo Street beneath our building. This stretch of road was always packed with pedestrians at lunch time, so it was almost certain that people had died in the quake."

Staff inside the building began to think of escape plans until rescuers arrived to them later.

Celina Elliott was one of those trapped inside. She says in her Quake Studies story it seemed to last forever, even though it was relatively short.

"I remember a bit of a bang followed immediately by rocking, rolling and shaking and not being able to get off my typist chair to crawl under the desk because the chair kept rolling back and forward and I was trying to grab something so I could get under the reception desk. I couldn't even grab the reception desk.

"Shelves were falling off the wall, crashing to the ground, the photocopier was moving around in the kitchen right behind me, glass was crashing to the kitchen floor. It was just a complete cacophony of noise, so loud, so much movement, and it seemed to last forever, the dust seemed to be rising from everywhere."

In 2017, fashion stores, bars and restaurants opened up at The Crossing - a $140 million complex bordered by Colombo and Lichfield streets.

At the time, RNZ reported residents were already wandering around the centre as builders made last minute adjustments, and workers cleaned their store windows.

The 119-year-old Knox Presbyterian Church building was another place of worship that was severely damaged. Unlike the ChristChurch Cathedral which continues to face delays and obstacles, the Presbyterian Church has since been reconstructed using the existing frames in addition to new architecture.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs