Christchurch, New Zealand (AFP) March 6, 2011
After a deadly earthquake left homes creaking and wiped out buildings and jobs, thousands of residents have turned their back on Christchurch, raising questions over the city's future.
City officials estimate one-sixth of Christchurch's 390,000 population -- some 65,000 people -- have fled New Zealand's second city, terrified by incessant aftershocks or because their workplace has been affected.
The key question is how many of those departures will prove to be permanent.
"I'm leaving," said resident Tyra Yeabsley, who was in the worst-hit CTV building a day before the February 22 tremor razed it to the ground, killing dozens.
"I was always intending to but this has just made that resolve to move all the more strong."
The shallow, 6.3-magnitude quake devastated the South Island's bustling tourist gateway, reducing two major office buildings to rubble, leaving a large hotel tilting and causing parts of the iconic Christchurch Cathedral to crumble.
Estimates are that the tremor -- that killed at least 166 people -- destroyed one-third of the buildings in central Christchurch and left 10,000 people homeless.
Mayor Bob Parker has warned it could be months before parts of the city reopen, and though the government has underwritten all employees' wages for six weeks in a bid to protect jobs, prospects for the CBD's 52,000 workers are uncertain.
"I know already that populations in other towns in the South Island have risen exponentially as people from here who have the ability to or have a holiday home or have a contact relocate," Parker told AFP.
"They need to make arrangements for their children's education, they need some sort of permanence."
Hundreds of Canterbury University students are being shipped to Australia to finish their studies while thousands of schoolchildren have enrolled elsewhere, some as far away as Auckland, after some local schools warned they could be closed for a year.
The quake, an aftershock of a 7.0-magnitude shudder on September 4 which caused damage but no deaths, has left city businesses scrambling for office space in the suburbs, setting up in warehouses and homes.
Some companies had moved their servers into bunkers after the earlier quake, meaning staff can log in from home while the city remains in lockdown, but others have lost everything.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of residences are still without power or water, and a quarter of all homes will need some sort of repair work.
About 10,000 will need to be demolished -- entire streets in some suburbs -- and the rush is on to find parks and other land for temporary housing before the punishing southern winter sets in.
Cruise ships are even being considered to accommodate the residents of Lyttelton, epicentre of the violent quake, according to civil defence controller Steve Brazier.
But many have been scarred by their experience and simply want out.
"We're leaving for an indeterminate period," said resident Kerry Kinsman, who has to pass through police and army roadblocks just to leave her street.
"I'm sick of having earthquakes every day. In the centre right where we live we feel them a lot."
Delicatessen manager Maarten Loeffen believes it will take at least five years to clean up the city centre and while larger firms could move staff to operations in other New Zealand cities, small business owners will struggle.
"I think the whole economy and the whole structure of Christchurch will change, more people will maybe go out to the suburbs," he said.
"I really think there's going to be poverty."
Redundancies have begun in earnest, with at least one major supermarket chain joining scores of small businesses in refusing to reopen its doors, costing hundreds of jobs at two stores alone.
The devastation in Christchurch, which accounts for some 15 percent of New Zealand's economy, has been estimated at NZ$16 billion ($12 billion), with officials warning it could send the country into recession.
But while the exodus is undeniable, experts believe it will only be temporary, with the city's location in Canterbury's rich farming heartland and proximity to the major port of Lyttelton still strong drawcards for business.
"It's partly driven by a strong agricultural sector, the expansion of manufacturing, which is probably a bit cheaper to run in Christchurch than Auckland," said population geographer Ward Friesen, from Auckland University.
"And I'd imagine that would remain to be the case -- assuming the ground stabilises a bit."
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