Friday, 10 September 2010

Well done Christchurch - Lessons learned from the earthquake

When I was in charge of Wellington and the central and lower North Island as regional commissioner for the Ministry of Civil Defence, I used to have nightmares about a magnitude 7 plus earthquake hitting Wellington. I had a number of meetings with Mayor Michael Fowler and his council to discuss preparedness and response measures. We put a lot of time into the Wellington Civil Defence plan and training for the big quake. Who would have predicted it would strike in and around Christchurch ? It did, and we must record the lessons carefully and use it as a model for planning, preparedness, response, emergency leadership and recoverey. Well done Christchurch ! You handled the first week so well.The world can learn from you.
Having a house Christchurch and a rate payer, I can say we are getting excellent value for our money in Christchurch in terms of recovery leadership and excellent Civil Defence response.

I found this excellent article today which captures many of the lessons learned. by MARTIN VAN BEYNEN - The Dominion Post

A severe shake tests infrastructure, examines emergency responses, exposes planning decisions and most of all asks searching questions of people.

Canterbury, in its first week after the tremor, which struck at 4.35am last Saturday, has passed many of these tests with flying colours. It can pat itself on the back – but not too hard.

A week after one of the biggest jolts to strike a modern, populated city anywhere in the world let alone New Zealand, Canterbury authorities have managed to restore most of the services usually taken for granted.

By tomorrow, just about everybody still living in their own home in Canterbury should have water and power. Given the extent of the breakages and outages, that is some achievement. Most homes had water and power by Monday night and by Tuesday 90 per cent of Christchurch residents were able to flush their toilets. By yesterday, only 11 streets were without water.

The airport inspected its runways immediately and within hours aircraft were taking off again. The Port of Lyttelton was working again on Sunday afternoon despite up to $50 million of damage to wharves and storage areas.

As expected, Canterbury people pitched in and did what they could for themselves and their neighbours and friends. Welfare centres set up on Saturday were still busy mid-week with about 280 people in occupation – out of the city of 360,000 or so.
People like bungy king AJ Hackett went ahead with their weddings in the ruined city. Mike Bird didn't have much choice. He had already tattooed September 4 on his arm.

By Wednesday, the chooks had started laying again and by Thursday some schools had reopened.

Not all the memories were bad. Hours after the quake, writer Joe Bennett found fellow citizens of Lyttelton in good spirits. "Everyone was talking in the sunshine. There was a lot of laughter. It didn't seem to be the nervous laughter of survivors. It was cheerful, convivial. It felt like a holiday," he wrote.

In the aftermath, Wayne Alexander, of Christchurch, said: "You're never more in love with life and that's what I like about it. Whenever you face loss you realise on the other side of it what you've got."

BUT FIRST there was terror. For many the noise was deafening as windows rattled fit to break, glass and crockery crashed to the floor and chimneys and tiles toppled. In beach suburbs the first panicked thought was for a possible tsunami. Those with access to vehicles caused a traffic jam as they headed away from the coast. Without power many could not open their automatic garage doors.

Annette Preen, on her own in her new house in Bexley, felt trapped as she tried to kick down her security door. "I thought I was going to die." When she made it outside she fell headfirst into the wet sand piled at her front door.

"I fell flat on my face and the silt being so heavy I couldn't get out."

Ad Feedback For Chris Piper, 18, of St Martins, it was the scariest moment of his life. He was in a sleepout behind his family's home and was woken painfully when a television set fell on his feet.
"I threw my girlfriend on the lawn and then went to the house in barefeet and my underwear to see tiles and the chimney crashing down. I thought the whole house was going to collapse. I thought my whole family was going to die in front of me."

Paraplegic Renee Hayman was lying in her room at the Kate Sheppard Hospital in Avonside. "I felt quite helpless, really," she says.
At dawn, Christchurch turned on a pearler of a day. Residents could survey the damage in the light of warm, bright sunshine. Another godsend perhaps.

Supermarkets were some of the first businesses to reopen. By 10.40am, St Martins New World had cleaned up aisles smelling of vinegar and alcohol and had tills running on generator power. By midday power was on and business was as busy as a Christmas Eve, owner Russell McKenzie said.

Other supermarkets around town faced panic buying and were soon out of bottled water, milk, bread, batteries and candles. As it became clear that starvation was going to be averted, the panic subsided. Frantic buying at the city's service stations also abated as it became clear fuel supplies were not threatened.

Every city has its low-lifes and a few took advantage of deserted houses and businesses to help themselves. Some were caught, including two burglars masquerading as tradesmen. But there was no looting and overall crime was down, police said. However, domestic violence spiked as strained nerves and arguments escalated.

The rally happened quickly. By mid-week the army of volunteers, recruited partly from students at Canterbury's two universities and from the Christchurch Polytechnic, had swelled to over 1000. Many others had already done their bit. As Janet Derham prepared to evacuate her ravaged Bexley home on Monday, a woman from Avonhead and a student arrived from nowhere to help her pack. Age Concern had many offers from people offering to help old people clean up.

Mostly, the speedy restoration of services was due to the efforts of well organised crews of fixers – the linesmen, the cable jointers, the excavator drivers, the drainlayers, the plumbers, roofers and builders. They were people like Ed Askew, a cable jointer for Orion, the operator of the Christchurch power network, who worked continuous 14-hour days despite his own two-storey home being devastated.

Orion engineer Steve MacDonald was at work at midday on Saturday despite the destruction of his home at Brooklands.
As a radio announcer put it: "Good people doing the right things."

Although the aftershocks kept coming, it was important to look around occasionally for a reminder that Christchurch was not levelled and most of it looked absurdly normal.

A stranger driving into Christchurch on Monday, might well have wondered what all the fuss was about. The visitor would have seen the rubbish collectors emptying the city's red refuse bins, heavy traffic on intact roads and cyclists and joggers out enjoying a sunny day.

Damage was not instantly visible. The sharp-eyed would have seen tarpaulins covering holes where chimneys had been, but would have been hard-pressed to see much more.

Those inclined to scoff at reports about the severity of the quake were in for a rude shock in the central city where a different picture emerged. Police officers and army staff were manning cordons and checkpoints. The streets were crawling with men in white hard hats and orange vests carrying clipboards. Demolition crews were already working. Orange cones, temporary fences, emergency tape and orange netting screened hard-hit buildings, many with jagged cracks and bits missing. A walk around town, those parts that were accessible, would have revealed cracked towers, ruptured walls and piles of rubble.

The Christchurch earthquake will be remembered for the massive damage it caused rather than the people it killed.

The timing of the first 30-second jolt on Saturday was incredibly fortunate. The Napier earthquake hit about 10.30am on a busy shopping day. In Christchurch the streets were empty of traffic and people. Nobody was shopping and few cars were parked under the many brick facades in the city.

Nobody was on the footpath outside the apartments of the former Old Normal School building in Montreal Street when a massive chimney came tumbling on to the asphalt.

Nobody was sleeping in the guest bed at the historic Godley House, in Diamond Harbour, when the fireplace fell on to the bed.

Nobody was on Bridle Path Rd near Lyttelton when a car-sized boulder plummeted from its perch further up the hill. Architect Sir Miles Warren was not sitting in his usual chair at his historic homestead Ohinetahi when stone blocks landed on it.

In the Hornby coolstores and supermarket distribution centres, no-one was working when nine-metre-high racking loaded with heavy goods such as alcohol collapsed. The resulting mess in some warehouses was three storeys high but nobody was buried underneath.

Former Christchurch man John Mander, a structural engineering professor teaching at Texas A and M University, says "of any place in the world this would probably be the best prepared".

He refers to the more stringent building standards imposed in New Zealand after the Napier earthquake and to the general awareness gained from living in an earthquake-prone country.

THERE is no doubt Canterbury responded well. A well- educated and resourceful population containing an army of skill and brawn, backed by a trained and honest central and local government, civil service, police force and other emergency services made all the difference. Canterbury is not Haiti, which showed poverty kills.

Modern technology also helped. Earthquake-proof cellphone towers meant people could check on each other and call for help.

Valerie Walsh, for instance, was stuck in her twisted Bexley house which was slowly filling in the dark with silty water. She sent a text to a friend who sounded the alert.

The quake and its aftermath will be studied and analysed for years to come. For New Zealand it is a resounding wake-up call.

For Cantabrians, whether they suffered damage or not, the earthquake of September 4 was a shattering experience never to be forgotten.


Marja said...

This article captures it all perfectly. The good and the bad.
I am proud that our city did so well and the people looked after each other but when I walked through our beautiful city and saw the damage street after street I felt sad again. Thanks for your support Bob.
Take care marja

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Marja

You can all be very proud of what you have done in supporting each other, and getting through the first very difficukt week. said...

Thank you for your article, pretty worthwhile material.

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