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Moment that mattered: A 6.3 magnitude aftershock hits Christchurch

Damage to Christchurch Cathedral, which Prince William has witnessed.

“A magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in September 2010. But it was the magnitude 6.3 “aftershock” which occurred at 12.51pm on 22nd February 2011 that has had the greatest impact on this beautiful city and its people. The February quake was only 6km deep and 7km from the city centre, whereas the September quake was 10km deep and 38km from the city. It made a huge and tragic difference.

I was in Auckland at a conference when I heard the news of the February quake and it took me four days to get to Christchurch to begin assessing the structural damage – the first effect of the earthquake for New Zealanders outside of Christchurch was for all flights throughout the country to be grounded. I came laden with water bottles, sleeping bags, hand sanitiser, cans of food, first aid kit, my heavy boots, hi-vis vest and other safety equipment.

As I walked in to the centre of town the roads were very quiet. There were aftershocks – there have been over 5,000 tremors of various sizes in Christchurch since the initial September earthquake. But there didn’t seem to be that much damage until I got to the end of the street near the park. The entire front of an old two-storied unreinforced brick shop had collapsed out on to the street, leaving a room upstairs open to view and the shop downstairs almost entirely hidden beneath the rubble. I took several photos of the fallen bricks and collapsed shop verandah before realising what I was actually looking at – a flattened car with a posy of flowers on the empty driver’s seat. I learnt later that the driver had been killed outright while parked outside the shop.

Due to my job, I have seen more of the devastation than most. The city is now a strange mix of undamaged housing and utter devastation – often side by side, although the eastern suburbs have generally suffered more than those out to the west. The destruction in the central city area has been beamed into living rooms worldwide, but can’t convey the full story. When seen first-hand, there are fallen walls and damaged buildings everywhere and the sheer scale of it is very difficult to take in. As an engineer it is not only terrible, though – it is also terribly fascinating how and where and why the devastation has been wrought.

The people I work with have been busier than ever, assessing damage and helping to stabilise buildings so they are made safe, re-establishing essential services. And yet many of them return to devastated homes, or no home at all, in the evenings – and even, in a couple of cases, to the absence of loved ones who have died. What amazes me is their resilience, and the way they simply do not complain. I’m not talking this up – these people can teach the rest of us a great deal about what is truly important in this world.

The Christchurch earthquake was chased from the front page by the even more tragic events that unfolded in Japan – and rightly so. I think most people felt relief from the endless and often repetitive coverage from Christchurch. People in Christchurch were too busy living the news to be able to watch it, or simply didn’t yet have power reconnected – or an undamaged TV to watch it on. We were also greatly touched by the Japanese tragedy, and grateful that our search and rescue experts were able to help a nation who had sent their own people to help us. But we could not watch the coverage. It was too soon, and our own wounds were still too raw to see such suffering again.

Christchurch is a city full of brick and stone buildings. Although not old by international standards, they represent our earliest settler heritage. Their value lies in their beauty and in their connection to the people who were here before us. After the September earthquake, people fought to retain these buildings, but after the February earthquake talk of the future is more pragmatic. Engineers are working hard to design steel shoring systems to prop up some of the more important heritage buildings – such as the old municipal chambers – until in-depth assessments and long-term decisions about their future can be made. The stately Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament will have its unstable north tower and main dome carefully removed to prevent further collapse in an aftershock.

But the buildings where the majority of the earthquake’s victims died were built much more recently, in about the 1960s or 1970s. So it is not simply a matter of strengthening or demolishing the “old” buildings. The extent of the devastation means there is huge opportunity to build a new Christchurch that is the envy of cities worldwide and attractive for visitors for different reasons from those that previously brought them here. There is a long way to go yet before life in Christchurch returns to “normal”, but already some of the more optimistic and forward-thinking of its citizens can see that the future of this broken city is looking bright.” l


Karen Wrigglesworth is Communication Engineer at Opus International. Her engineering blog is at www.geekygetaways.wordpress.com

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