Story: Canterbury region

Page 17. Canterbury earthquakes and rebuild

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The Darfield earthquake

At 4.35 a.m. on Saturday 4 September 2010, Canterbury was rocked by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake centred near Darfield. There was no loss of life and few serious injuries, but many stone and masonry buildings were damaged. Some buildings in coastal settlements like Kaiapoi and Bexley were badly affected by liquefaction (water-saturated sand and silt). Aftershocks continued to rattle the region.

Army of helpers

After the Darfield earthquake University of Canterbury students formed the Student Volunteer Army via social media. The ‘army’ organised thousands of students to help clean up quake debris in affected properties and streets. In two weeks they shovelled away 65,000 tonnes of liquefaction. Following the Christchurch earthquake they cleared another 360,000 tonnes of liquefaction.

The Christchurch earthquake  

The largest aftershock was the magnitude 6.3 Christchurch earthquake, which occurred at 12.51 p.m. on Tuesday 22 February and struck along the northern edge of the Port Hills. The earthquake’s shallowness and the high energy level caused severe shaking. Many buildings collapsed completely or partially, causing multiple deaths and injuries. These included the Canterbury Television (CTV) Building (115 deaths) and the Pyne Gould Corporation Building (18 deaths). A further 36 people died elsewhere in the central city and 12 in suburban areas, some from rock falls. Four more deaths were attributed to the earthquake by the chief coroner, bringing the total to 185.

Tens of thousands of dwellings were damaged and many people were made homeless. Streets and bridges were twisted, water and sewerage pipes broken and electricity lines severed. People experienced varied emotions: fear, shock, relief and despair.


The government civil defence agency declared a national state of emergency. The central city (or ‘red zone’) was cordoned off as Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams searched for survivors and bodies in the rubble. Electricity was restored to 75% of the city within three days. Households without power made do with candles and lanterns and cooking on gas barbecues. Neighbourhoods without drinking water were given bottled water and visited by water trucks. Portaloos (chemical toilets) were delivered to areas with broken sewers. Neighbours came together in mutual aid; outsiders arrived to help clean up. Engineers worked tirelessly to declare damaged buildings safe or unsafe. More than 70,000 people left the city, some permanently.

Eastern suburbs neglected  

In early March 2011 blogger Peter Hyde described Christchurch’s lower-income eastern suburbs as a ‘refugee city’ populated by 50,000 to 100,000 people. 1 There was little access to power, no showers or ways to wash dishes and clothes, too few portaloos, and no face masks to protect against windblown silt. Such conditions led to claims that the official response was favouring higher-income areas at the expense of the east. This was denied by officials, but earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee conceded the area had been neglected.


The government set up the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to lead the city’s rebuilding, alongside territorial authorities, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and other groups. On 30 April 2011 the state of emergency was lifted and CERA took over from Civil Defence. It continued inspecting damaged buildings, ordering the demolition of hundreds. By February 2015 over one-quarter of buildings in the central city had been either demolished or partly demolished (including those destroyed in the quakes).

Land zones and insurance claims

CERA mapped Christchurch into land zones for rebuilding.

  • Red-zoned land was deemed unsuitable for rebuilding. Property owners could accept a government buyout of their properties or negotiate with their insurer. Most accepted the government offer. 8,062 properties were affected.
  • Green-zoned land was deemed suitable for rebuilding. Those with damaged properties had to negotiate settlements with the government Earthquake Commission (which covered damage up to $100,000) and their insurer.

The settlement of claims was slow. Critics charged insurers with deliberately delaying claims for financial benefit. Insurers said the complexity of claims was the problem.

Still suffering

A survey of 800 Cantabrians in early 2014 found that 67% were still grieving for what had been lost in Christchurch, 65% reported feeling tired and almost half were not sleeping well. Experts were not surprised by the finding, explaining that recovering emotionally from a disaster could take between five and 10 years.

Recovery plan

In July 2012 the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan was released. It was the culmination of thousands of ideas contributed by residents and professionals. The plan envisaged a low-rise CBD framed by corridors of open space. Its backbone was 12 anchor projects, from a rebuilt city mall to a new arts precinct. The rebuilding would be managed by the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU). In June 2013 the government and Christchurch City Council entered a cost-sharing agreement over funding the anchor projects and damaged infrastructure like streets and pipes.

Rebuild pace

In mid-2014 opinion was divided over the direction and pace of the rebuild. Tensions between the government and Christchurch City Council had hindered progress; some thought CCDU processes were scaring off developers, and thousands were still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. On the other hand, the government’s relationship with the council was improving; about 10% of the rebuild had been completed, cordons had been lifted from the inner-city red zone and several large businesses had committed to moving back into the CBD.

The Kaikōura earthquake

At 12.02 a.m. on Monday 14 November 2016 a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck central New Zealand, causing significant damage to buildings and infrastructure in northern Canterbury and neighbouring Marlborough. Landslides cut off road and rail links to Kaikōura, stranding large numbers of visitors in the popular tourist town. Two people lost their lives: one at Mt Lyford as a result of a heart attack and another when a house collapsed in Kaikōura. 

  1. Quoted in ‘Christchurch’s eastern suburbs “neglected” – Brownlee.’ NZ Herald, 3 March 2011, (last accessed 30 October 2014) Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury region - Canterbury earthquakes and rebuild', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015