The visit to Christchurch was emotionally draining. I’d never seen the effects of a natural disaster up close the way I did there.

Earlier this year I was worried that Hurricane Irma would hammer my hometown (Atlanta, Georgia). It did a lot of damage elsewhere, but unlike Opal, it mostly left my parents’ city alone. Hurricane Andrew was bad, as was Katrina, but Atlanta just isn’t close enough to the coast to ever get the worst of those storms.

Probably the closest I’ve personally come to experiencing a natural disaster was at the Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where I and my 8-year-old classmates nervously rode out the deadliest of the dozens of tornadoes that struck the region while were on a field trip. That night, us kids had fun playing with our flashlights because our hotel had no power. The next day I remember seeing buildings with their walls ripped away leaving raw gaps in the architecture like the gaps in a child’s smile, but a lot less cute. What force could do that? I didn’t know it then, but twenty people had died.

When in 2011 Christchurch was struck by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake on 22 February, it left 185 people dead and thousands injured.

Shift happens.

The Quake City museum in Christchurch is an educational tourist attraction, but it’s hard to call it entertaining. I’m pretty sure going to the museum was the right thing to do, but it colored my experience for the rest of my brief stay in the city. Everywhere I looked, there was rubble, construction, graffiti, and a sense that everyone who hadn’t just up and left was making an effort to stand strong. It was a painful object lesson in the fragility of normalcy.

Below are 41 photos.

Heritage Christchurch Hotel

Earthquake damage, like tornado damage, can be rather hit-and-miss. The hotel we stayed in seemed to have come through fairly well.
Because it was the Old Government Building, it had a lot of vaults for storing important documents. The doors are still fairly imposing.
This nice stained-glass window stands at the top of a grand staircase.
Double stairs are awesome. They invariably call to mind the castle from Beauty and the Beast.
The stairs were decorated for Christmas.
This was the view out one of the windows of our hotel room. The building we were in was, uh, presumably fine, but the building next door needed some serious work.

Christchurch Art Gallery

The labels on the artworks in this museum were the best I can ever remember seeing. I’m not a fan of modern art, but even the pieces I didn’t like looking at had fantastic descriptions that were easy to understand and shed light on the intent and significance of each piece. Some panels, in addition to the curator’s explanations in the curator’s words, had direct quotes from the artists. My favorite artist quote said something like “There isn’t much I can say about my art that is better than saying nothing at all.” I realized that’s true of a lot of things. Silence is golden.

Speaking of golden… I enjoyed the exhibit full of yellow-themed artworks.
And speaking of colors… The colors of the text and background of this piece created the disconcerting illusion that the white text was closer than the red text, as if it was floating off the surface. Weird, right? Apparently this effect is called chromostereopsis.

Around Christchurch

The collapsed ChristChurch Cathedral is more fenced off than it looks in this photo.
This willow has a lot to weep about.
The Magistrates Court. Still standing, since 1908.
Originally stone, the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings have been rebuilt with metal, at least temporarily.
Those things pointing upwards in the triangular apertures look like middle fingers. Eff you, earthquake!
Waiting its turn for repair.
Abandoned store is abandoned.
Well, at least the musical notes are nice.
Containers protect cars and pedestrians from a potential collapse next door to the Christchurch City Council building.
This mural is FOC. Provided free of charge.
Elephants grace one of the better-looking parking lot walls.
There are a lot of gravel parking lots.
Have a Carlsberg Christmas, little old yellow car.
An exotic tree and a sign advertising—what else?—a construction company.
No alarm is needed to keep *me* out of buildings that might suddenly decide to fall down.
I’m approaching the dubious shelter of some stacked containers.
Please don’t fall today.
More paint.
Clearly a new building.
An old building (from 1901) made new again.
I loved the geometry of this highrise.
It has a graceful curve.
Also, a lot of beveled rectangles.
I think it was a hotel.
I think it will be again, but for now it’s closed and empty.
Construction crane.
A thoroughly decorated (presumably condemned) building.
A brand-new, bland new parking deck.
Surface parking. Someone told us,”Wherever you see a parking lot—there used to be a building there.”
Some bits of those buildings remain.
Some of the bits are not very big.
But, you know, life persists, hope springs eternal, and all that.

The most compelling exhibit in the Quake City museum was a film showing tearful quake survivors telling their stories. The credits said the film was made by “12.51 Productions” or something like that. 12:51 is a pleasingly symmetrical number on digital clocks, but it is also the time the 2011 quake struck Christchurch. Sigh.