In 1880’s, two port cities flourished half a world apart. Steeples jutted into their skylines, crowning architecture people traveled to see. Masonry-and-stucco buildings flanked bustling streets and green spaces.

The ground trembled. It heaved. Like a tablecloth jerked away from a feast-laden buffet.

Devastation rocked these cities. But their inhabitants were resilient. Steadfast. They reconstructed historic fabric. Knit buildings back together. Pronounced their work good.

The people of Christchurch, New Zealand repaired buildings damaged by the 1888 earthquake, but they could not know how those structures would fare more than 100 years later. They used the tools available at the time to make their city habitable, their lives bearable.

Just like the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina did in 1886.

MTM and I spent the day walking around Christchurch’s bombed-out City Center. I say ‘bombed-out’, because more than two years after a 7.3 shaker rocked the place, it still resembles a war zone. Condemned structures litter the landscape. Misshapen steel has been repurposed as art, but it bears witness to the capricious power of Nature. Rubble is everywhere.

I’m looking at downtown Charleston, should we have another 1886. Our historic fabric will be leveled. Crushed. Annihilated. And our city has no emergency plan for preparing property owners for the carnage, for dealing with the destruction, or for recreating itself.

Other than to hope we don’t have another severe earthquake.

Why will Charleston’s historic buildings suffer during a major quake?

  1. Most of the historic buildings were constructed with soft brick, pre Portland cement. The mortar in many masonry buildings is now sand.
  2. But doesn’t repointing the brick fix the mortar? NO. Repointing can only go about a half inch into a wall that’s three or four bricks thick.
  3. But won’t earthquake bolts help? NO. Earthquake bolts were used to stabilize the upper floors of buildings, but shaking occurs at the foundation. If the bottom of the building moves, bolts will not stop its collapse. In fact, they may even accelerate it.
  4. Much of the city, even in historic areas, is built on landfill, which is subject to liquefaction.

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To see photos of our tour of central Christchurch, click here: Andra Watkins Tumblr

To lighten it up just a bit, click here to see Thomas’ car tour the destruction: Andra Watkins Tumblr

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