185 empty white chairs: remembering Christchurch earthquake

Reflecting on the Christchurch earthquakes 10 years on – Resilience Conversations

We brought together Dr Juliet Mian, The Resilience Shift, and Dr Kristen MacAskill, University of Cambridge, to discuss their reflections, 2 years on from our Christchurch round-table and 10 years on from the devastating earthquakes. What is the learning from this event looking back, and for building more resilience to future events and uncertainties?

At 12.51 p.m. on Tuesday 22 February 2011, a shallow, 6.3 magnitude quake occurred just 10 kilometres from the centre of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-most populous city, killing 185 people and injuring several thousand. Only five months after a previous more powerful magnitude 7.1 earthquake, this earthquake occurred on a shallow fault line close to the city, so the shaking was particularly destructive. It caused the greatest ground acceleration ever recorded in New Zealand with extensive changes in ground level. The earthquake brought down many buildings damaged the previous September, especially older brick and mortar buildings and many significant for the City’s heritage.

Water-saturated layers of sand and silt beneath the surface were shaken into sludge that forced upwards through cracks. This extensive liquefaction created thick layers of silt, and water and sewage from broken pipes, with large areas of the city’s sewers, water mains, and stormwater drains damaged. House foundations were cracked and buckled. About 25,000 houses suffered serious damage and more than half of all buildings in the central city had to be demolished with large areas of suburban land subsequently abandoned.

The government declared a national state of emergency the day after the quake. Authorities quickly cordoned off Christchurch’s central business district and this cordon remained in place in some areas until June 2013. Power companies restored electricity to 75 per cent of the city within three days, but re-establishing water supplies and sewerage systems took much longer. People endured more than 11,000 aftershocks, while dealing with lost and damaged homes, disrupted communities and workplaces.

The Resilience Shift round-table in February 2019 presented an opportunity to explore infrastructure resilience following the experience of recovery. Attendees represented the City, utilities, key agencies involved in the recovery and leaders from the community and health sectors. Our lessons learned provided many insights particularly on the human factor and people’s role as part of the critical infrastructure.

Read the insights presented at the round-table and the report.

Kristen MacAskill (L) and Juliet Mian (R)

The Resilience Shift has brought together again the leaders of the round-table series, Dr Juliet Mian, Deputy Director, The Resilience Shift together with Dr Kristen MacAskill of the University of Cambridge to discuss their further reflections at this time of remembrance, and to consider implications for building resilience against future events.

A focus on knowledge-building

The wider impact of the event is felt across the field of risk and resilience. The extensive records of the event have been influential in research, for example, with Christchurch’s archived data being the most comprehensive record of a liquefaction event. Kristen, originally from New Zealand, has worked on and studied the recovery in Christchurch. She noted how many of those involved in the immediate response, the recovery and indeed the round-table are inputting to wider knowledge. For example this article, published by US National Institute standards and Technology (NIST) highlights an American initiative, including lessons learned from Christchurch, to tighten up building regulations to include measures that could help get the buildings and services society depends on up and running quickly after an earthquake.

Someone who is looking directly at the problem in relation to its impact on resilience for  new infrastructure, is Ibrahim (Ibbi) Almufti, seismic engineering specialist at Arup, leading its Risk and Resilience Business in San Francisco.

Ibbi Almufti

“The major takeaways from Christchurch was that it highlighted some limitations in the building code approach, which focuses on life safety, not resilience.” In Christchurch,185 people tragically lost their lives. From an engineering perspective, Ibbi says, “the damage observed was entirely predictable and consistent with code life safety objectives. But Christchurch demonstrated the major gap between what the codes provide and what the public expects. The central business district was cordoned for more than two years.”

He uses this as an example to underscore the need for a paradigm shift in the way we design new buildings, towards a resilience-based design approach as set out in the REDi Rating System (Resilience-based Earthquake Design Initiative for the Next Generation of Buildings), an initiative he has been heavily involved with.

“The other learning from Christchurch is that you are at the mercy of your surroundings. For example, in Christchurch, even if your building was spared, you couldn’t access it because the entire downtown was cordoned off due to the extensive damage”, he adds.

“I’m now involved as one of two international peer reviewers developing New Zealand’s Low Damage Seismic Design guidelines. It took 10 years but happy to see that their engineering community is going in this direction.”

The round-table noted that barriers to embedding resilience into infrastructure design and management are not purely technical, and the more intractable barriers are around governance and the process of decision-making. Changing the mindset and culture of decision makers remains one of the principal challenges for resilient infrastructure and participants noted the wider value of the existing civil defence systems, such as the regional Lifelines fora. This concept was discussed in a paper, ‘Fostering resilience-oriented thinking’, published in the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)’s Engineering Sustainability journal.

The importance of community-led resilience

Erica Seville is Executive Director of Resilient Organisations and currently Commissioner on the Board of the Earthquake Commission (EQC), and a Principle Investigator with QuakeCoRE, a centre of research excellence on earthquake resilience.

Erica Seville

She said, “Recovery from an earthquake (or series of earthquakes as we experienced) is never going to be a quick process, and our recovery is still ongoing”. She highlights the emergence of a true sense of community and people pulling together to support each other. “This came through time and time again, be it the Student and Farmy Armies rallying around to dig out liquefaction from people’s gardens, businesses reaching out to actively support their competitors to get back on their feet, or contractors doing amazing work to get our critical infrastructure back up and functioning. I think we came out of it with a confidence that when the chips are down, our community actually does have what it takes to pull through.”

“People from right across the community were energised and engaged in discussing and debating the city’s future. Too often I feel we overlook and under-support affected communities to really shape their own recoveries.”

The community resilience also struck her and how the city and its economy continued despite the near total shutdown of the central city. “This was certainly helped by an influx of insurance money and effective government support, but it is also a testament to the creativity of people and businesses to find ways to adapt to their new reality.”

The round-table discussion reflected the relevance of the Māori proverb,”He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata he tāngata he tāngata” (for context of this proverb see endnote). The meaning roughly translates as “What is the most important thing in the world, it is the people, the people, the people.” Erica concludes, “During the earthquake we experienced the truth of this, and whenever we focused predominantly on looking after our people, it ultimately served us well.”

Kristen and Juliet discussed the need for the same kind of community engagement in climate action – and the challenge of how to engage people with decision making when there is no specific emergency motivating them to get involved. Juliet notes that “From reflecting on Christchurch and other events through our work – such as Cape Town: Learning from Day Zero, Covid – Resilient Leadership initiative – we see that we, as society, need to build up a more compelling message that thinking about the risks we know isn’t adequate. We must contemplate uncertainty and ask ourselves ‘What if…?’”.

They were both reminded of a participant at the round-table who noted, “There is universally inadequate recognition of the importance of preparedness”, and that building resilience requires us to value the effort that goes into being prepared for possibilities, rather than just being prepared for the things that might have the highest risk of occurring in the next couple of years.

Is NZ’s Covid response shaped by its ‘crisis memory’?

There is a different kind of response when it is physical damage than a health crisis, and for Covid, the health angle has overtaken the civil defence process as has the fact that it must be a nationally-steered response. While New Zealand is recognised globally as having done well in the response to Covid so far, there are some chinks in the armour.

Kristen notes that “One key tension highlighted in the discussion is the reliance on being able to create new legal frameworks in response to a major emergency – which is a mechanism New Zealand still relies on, despite its prior experiences.  I think it would be impossible for any society to develop a framework that is going to be robust in all cases, but the message here is that we can still do better at foreseeing the potential issues and taking seriously the exposure to risk. In my mind this has pertinent links to the current House of Lords review of risk assessment in the UK.”

This feature on Radio New Zealand discusses the difference between earthquake vs pandemic response and recovery with reference to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act (CERA) legislation (9’30”). Prof. John Hopkins (at 22’) highlights how the pandemic response is being led by health, with the national emergency management arrangements “side-lined”.

The long tail of recovery

Ten years into the recovery, key strategic projects have taken a long time to deliver and the central city still has some struggles to overcome. But when does ‘recovery’ stop? Juliet and Kristen in their discussion highlight that there is a huge legacy of damage to social wellbeing as well as to physical infrastructure. A positive outcome is how the city has redeveloped in a different way, bringing people back into the central zone in ways that weren’t possible before. Research shows that a 10-15 year recovery tail should be expected following a major event so it’s not unsurprising that some of the bigger issues or rebuilding projects are not completed, but “What can we do to go faster?” asks Juliet. “With climate change, more frequent catastrophic events, you can’t wait 10 years, there is a cascading effect from repeating events.”

What’s next for Christchurch?

The enhanced sensor network around Christchurch as part of its ‘Smart Christchurch’ agenda helps them monitor seismic activity in real time and more precisely. But the location of Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island makes it under threat from earthquakes as well as by climate change impacts such as sea-level rise, flooding, landslides and wildfires and these risks cannot be easily predicted with any precision.

The Alpine Fault is predicted to have the potential for a Magnitude 8 event (AF8) and this is a recognised hazard that would have widespread impacts. The City of Wellington is overdue a big earthquake, and all are conscious of the learning from Christchurch, in that Wellington has only two entry points into and out of the city. You must go through the city centre to maintain supplies to residents so critical infrastructure would be directly affected by city centre destruction.

On 22 February, some may choose to gather at the Oi Manawa Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, a joint project between the New Zealand Government, Christchurch City Council and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the administrative body of the South Island iwi, Ngāi Tahu.

Ngāi Tahu has gifted the te reo Māori name for the memorial, Oi Manawa, which means ‘tremor or quivering of the heart’. It also refers to the shaking of earthquake tremors and is symbolic of the trauma experienced as a result of the earthquakes. Ngāi Tahu has also blessed the memorial, along with sites where lives were lost in the earthquake.

Our thoughts go out to those in Christchurch who lost loved ones.

With thanks to Juliet Mian, Kristen MacAskill, Erica Seville, Ibbi Almufti, and Laurie Anderson, for their contribution.

 


Featured image – Bernard Spragg, Flickr – 185 empty white chairs: remembering Christchurch earthquake

Reflection of Loss of Lives, Livelihoods and Living in Neighbourhood is an installation by Peter Majendie, standing on a vacant lot in the heart of Christchurch. Where a church once proudly stood, the 185 white chairs each represent one of the 185 lives lost in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Each chair, just like its owner, has its own distinct personality, with the installation including armchairs, dining room chairs, a wheel chair, and even a baby capsule. The 185 square metres of grass that the chairs sit on represents new growth and regeneration – something which you can see and feel across the whole city. The artist’s statement poetically reminds us all that the ‘installation is temporary – as is life’.


Note on Māori proverb: These words are credited to Te Aupouri wāhine rangatira (female chief) Meri Ngaroto in the early 19th century. She is referring to the people to whom we are connected – and the idea that we are people through other people, and all that they represent in terms of knowledge and experience. For more on this, see this article.

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