CHRISTCHURCH // Two strong aftershocks have jangled nerves in New Zealand's second biggest city, where an earthquake killed 181 people and destroyed the central district six months ago.
Since the 6.3-magnitude quake on February 22, the Christchurch region has experienced more than 4,000 aftershocks, hampering the recovery effort and reinforcing uncertainty about the future.
Leanne Curtis, who lives in one of the worst affected residential areas, said: "Do you stay and keep wondering if there'll be another big one, or do you go?"
Mrs Curtis's house is one of more than 5,000 deemed uninhabitable as a result of the February quake, which liquefied the ground in suburbs east of the city centre. The government has offered to buy homes located in the "red zone", but some residents are reluctant to rebuild elsewhere, while others say they cannot afford to do so because land prices have rocketed.
A Royal Commission has been examining why so many buildings in the centre were destroyed. Nearly two thirds of people died in one office block, the Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which pancaked and collapsed in February. No one inside survived.
Among those hoping for answers is Iraqi-born Maan Alkaisi, who lost his wife, Maysoon Abbas, in the tragedy. A doctor, she was working in a clinic in the CTV building. Mr Alkaisi wants to know why she and the others died in a building only 25 years old. He said she had told him that the building felt shaky. "It was built in 1986, not 1886," he said. "We knew a lot about earthquakes at that time. For a building to collapse in such a drastic way, there must have been a drastic design failure."
Yesterday's tremors, measuring 4.0 and 4.8, came just before the first anniversary this Sunday of a 7.1-magnitude quake that caused widespread damage in Christchurch but claimed no lives. The February quake was shallower and centred closer to the city. Christchurch's mayor, Bob Parker, said it feels as if the city has been under "seismic attack" for 12 months.
Reconstruction, meanwhile, has yet to begin. In the city centre, where the most lives were lost in February, scores of buildings are still being demolished, and the entire business district remains cordoned off.
The Canterbury City Council recently released a widely praised plan for a new, lower-rise, more compact centre, but locals are frustrated by the slow place of recovery.
Roger Sutton, the chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, said the damage wreaked by the quakes was equivalent to one-tenth of New Zealand's Gross Domestic Product. "There's nothing, really, to compare this with, because the scale of these events was so very large, and the level of destruction is so enormous."
Sue Holmes had to clean nearly a metre of foul-smelling silt out of her house after the September 4 quake, and then again in February. She lost her furniture, and most of her possessions, including treasured mementoes. With every aftershock, she panics.
"I don't think I've had a decent night's sleep for nearly a year," she said. "I keep my shoes by the bed, and even in the shower I keep my clothes in a plastic bag nearby. We've got torches all around the house, and an emergency backpack ready. We've timed ourselves, and we can grab the dogs and be dressed and out of here in less than a minute."
In Mrs Holmes's street, near the River Avon, only six of the 55 houses remain occupied. Other families have moved out because their land has liquefied so badly. "It's very quiet here now," said Mrs Holmes, who wears a fluorescent protective vest even indoors. "I miss the sound of children playing."
In the city centre, bunches of dead flowers decorate the metal fence around Christchurch's shattered core. One handwritten note states: "Happy birthday Chris, 15.5.76 - 22.2.11. Love you son. Missing you and thinking of you today and always with lots of love. Mum and Dad."
Beyond the barrier, bulldozers and lorries labour. Tourists poke their cameras through holes in the fence.
As residents weigh up whether to stay, authorities have played down reports of an exodus from the city, which has a population of 400,000. The Christchurch Press claimed last month that 26,000 had departed; the government said the figure was closer to 8,000.
Mr Parker said: "I don't believe that there's anybody who doesn't carry with them some trauma from these events. But we're still here, and we're planning for the future with strength and optimism."
He likened the reconstruction task to the rebuilding of bombed-out European cities after the Second World War. Up to 30 billion New Zealand dollars (Dh94.2 billion) will be spent over the next three to five years. It could be a decade before the commercial centre is completely rebuilt.
In the meantime, Mrs Holmes watches the earth and worries. "It's like being at war, except we're at war with the ground and we can't win."