Since 22 February 2011 the Christchurch Red Zone cordon has stood through snow storms and quakes, floods and protests around the fringe of the Central Business District. Almost like the perimeter of an army base, the only points in/out of the C.B.D. Red Zone were guarded around for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Army, Navy, Airforce and – in the early days of the earthquake emergency New Zealand and Australian police and Singaporean soldiers – personnel took turns guarding the entrances/exits to the C.B.D, making sure that only people and organisations accredited with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority were being allowed into the red zone.
On 23 February 2011, the cordon covered everything between Bealey Ave, Fitzgerald Ave, Moorhouse Ave, Durham Street, Oxford Terrace up to the hospital and the Avon River all the way to Bealey Ave. To enter the cordon without photo identification was impossible and getting arrested was virtually guaranteed. I had a moment where I wasn’t sure if the Singaporean soldier checking my identification was going to let me in or turn me around when I went to Civil Defence one day. It was quite an experience driving down Montreal Street with police and army road blocks at every intersection. The temptation to take a quick photo was there, but it was too dangerous, too likely to get oneself arrested, and nowhere to park anyway since the streets were still covered in debris.
The personnel worked in all conditions. They worked in a city still rocking with aftershocks, nervously watching buildings to see if they would suffer any further damage, waiting for the three blasts of the air horn that would signal immediate evacuation of the many demolition/deconstruction sites in the city and the subsequent convoy of vehicles making their exit. They worked in the worst of winter weather with heavy snow on 24-26 July 2011, 15-17 August 2011 and 06 June 2012, to say nothing of heavy rain in August 2011, 2011 and June 2013. Despite there being something in the air and water of Christchurch in 2011 that at some point or another laid low just about everyone, the Defence Force continued to man the cordons.
For months there was only the sound of birds, which began to return in late March 2011, sirens, demolitions and aftershocks. It was an eerie experience to stand in the middle of Durham Street in May 2011 with no traffic. No traffic lights were on. Liquefaction was still piled high in many places. There was the smell of food which had been abandoned in the restaurants, cafes and bars which was starting to go off. At night time a darkness unlike anything in any other central business district in New Zealand would settle on the central city.
They had many a task to do. Initially it was enforcing the cordon and making sure that intruders understood they would be arrested without hesitation – I saw at least a couple of people snooping around in the cordon for no good reason and the personnel always wanted the details. As the acceptance of their mission took hold and people began to see the Defence Force presence as an essential part of the C.B.D., the tasks began to change. As parts of the City began opening up, the Defence Force personnel became impromptu information sources, assisting lost tourists, answering questions from the many people that had not heard about the quakes and helping locals find out which buildings were staying or going; assisting those that needed access to the C.B.D.
Nobody said it would be easy. Watching a city that many of them had intricate ties to themselves, suffer so badly, would have been a huge incentive on its own to see how they could best assist the community. But as the months have worn on, and the aftershocks have gradually tapered off a sense of direction towards an eventual goal was achieved. Slowly, street by street, intersection by intersection the cordon was rolled back. In the 28 months I only saw two instance where a slowly decreasing cordon had widened – one after the 13 June 2011 quakes and the second after the 23 December 2011 quakes when more buildings had become unstable and needed urgent demolition or remedial work.
Finally at the end of May 2013, it was announced that the cordon would come down by the end of June. After 858 days the cordon was informally lifted at 1500 hours today – the German siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days before the Red Army broke through in January 1944. Christchurch has paid a huge price for these quakes, and the days spent by the Defence Force personnel on cordon duty will be with them for the rest of their lives.
But they can be damn proud of what they did. Thank You.