Society & Culture

John O' Hagan: Engineers on earthquake response and recovery

Carl Devereux & John O'Hagan | 27 February 2019 | 24:43

Podcast transcript: Engineers on disasters, earthquake recovery and regeneration

Kalay Maistry: Welcome to the latest episode of Engineering Reimagined, I’m Kalay Maistry. In this podcast series we will explore how, like engineers, people from all walks of life are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it.

Audio of ABC Sports television coverage of the 1989 world series baseball game 3 earthquake recording provide under license by ©ABC Sports

This was the moment that a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck the Baseball World Series in San Francisco on October 17th, 1989. It was one of the most powerful and destructive earthquakes ever to hit a populated area of the United States.

In 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake hit the island of Haiti, killing an estimated 250,000 people and displacing nearly 5 million. In 2011, New Zealand experienced its deadliest earthquake in 80 years and that same year, a magnitude 9 earthquake hit Japan with over 15,000 deaths and generated a tsunami over 40m high. While in January 2018, nearly a thousand people lost their lives after a magnitude 7.4 earthquake hit the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.

With earthquake-prone cities becoming more densely populated, the role of an engineer in the aftermath of a seismic event is more important than ever. How do engineers help with the emergency response immediately after and in the weeks following a natural disaster? Cities are planning for disruption and engineers are an integral part of that plan.

Carl Devereux and John O’Hagan have known each other for many years. John is the General Manager, Development at Otakaro Ltd and led rebuild projects following the 2011 Canterbury Earthquakes which devastated Christchurch in New Zealand. Carl is Aurecon’s New Zealand Regional Director and a member of the New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue team. Both are structural engineers and were on the ground in the aftermath of the deadly Christchurch earthquake where 185 people lost their lives.

Enjoy this insightful interview on the leading role engineers play in the emergency response following an earthquake.


Carl: Kia Ora Koutou John, welcome to Engineering Re-Imagined. It's a real pleasure to be sitting here and have a chat with you today.

John: Thanks for having me and great opportunity to be able to share stories and lessons that I've learned over the last seven years.

Carl: We've been friends for many years, and we've been on a journey together since the 2011 earthquakes. It's been quite a challenging time for both of us and particularly around the variety of roles that we've had in emergency response.

Carl: Following a destructive earthquake, it can be really hard to make sense out of the chaos. So you landed down here as a volunteer and not a lot of people realize the critical role engineers play in the immediate aftermath. What did that look like? Think back to those early days?

John: It was chaos, but it was organized chaos. I think it was really important and I was able to come to this realization fairly quickly that engineers were just part of a cog in a very big machine, but we're an extremely important cog in that machine. The information that we were gathering out in the field, building assessments, evaluations, placarding, those kind of things, was informing a much wider decision-making group. It informed logistics and informed communications and informed the Prime Minister, and we were the only ones with that information.

So, while it appeared chaotic and at sometimes the information that we were providing was well ahead of what the data entry people and the logistical people could cope with, every now and again it was just a matter of pausing, letting things catch up and then re-cast and go again.

Carl: So, there's a whole of decision-making behind that, particularly in how you prioritize what you do first. Can you talk us through some of that prioritization? Where would you start with the initial tasks?

John: The fundamental thing is, in my mind, is public safety. It had to be paramount in all the decision-making, so advising on the cordon and then carrying out building assessments. We needed to make sure that people had the confidence that the building that they were going to go back into or were working in or living in, was safe for them to be in. I think that was top of the pyramid, it was public safety. And then following behind that, but still related to safety, was making sure that key traffic routes in and out of the city for emergency services, and those kind of things, were maintained.

We needed to make sure that horizontal infrastructure, the three waters, were up and running pretty quickly and again that all falls back into the realm of public safety. Making sure people can turn on a tap and use water, can get to the hospital if they need to, and that the path that they use is safe for them to get there.

Carl: I can remember that from my own experience. You know, that balance of safety with being sympathetic to people's livelihoods. The people's worlds have been turned upside down. The simple act of allowing people temporary access into their home or to their work place to recover critical items, was actually so important to the recovery.

John: I think, adding to that very point, business continuity was a massive driver in some of the decision-making because of the widespread destruction in the CBD and the displacement of businesses. They knew when the cordon went up that that was going to be for some time. We couldn't have that economic flight out of Christchurch. It was just too important as an economic hope for New Zealand for the South Island to lose those businesses.

One of the very early tasks that we did in that first couple of weeks was escorting business owners back into the premises to get key items that they required to carry on. I think when we reflect back on that, we did that pretty well and we didn't have that economic flight that other cities around the world have experienced after a major disaster. We were able to keep businesses going.

John: One of the things I found challenging with bringing people into the businesses and into the cordon was that personal connection of their loss and their loss being the displacement of the business or the disruption that they've got in their lives.

I suppose I was fortunate that I came down from Wellington, I didn't have any emotional ties per se to Christchurch, I was here to do a job, and you run the risk of getting too robotic with it. You're particularly protected ... you're outside of the public eye protected by a cordon, and so you're able to do your business.

When we were starting to bring people in and seeing how emotional they got when they saw their city destroyed, seeing their building and their offices disrupted, that kind of started to play on you a bit. Whether or not it was fatigue, two weeks as a volunteer, as it was full on in those first two days, that was something that we had to manage pretty carefully within that response.

Carl: So what inspired you to become an engineer in the first place?

John: Growing up in Wellington in the '80s, there was lots of holes in the ground, and basements, and tower cranes and construction, and I just had a natural interest to it. I was drawn to the excitement and the buzz of what was happening on the building site.

I didn't know what an engineer was or did. I didn't know who was involved in construction at that age, I was pretty young, but I knew I had to have some involvement in it.

I don't have artistic bone in my body, so I went down the maths and physics route and ended up doing engineering.

Carl: Did you ever think you'd end up in the role you're currently in?

John: No, not at all. I also reflect on immediately after the earthquake when it happened and getting a phone call. I put my hand up. Didn't hesitate to come down to Christchurch and as part of that volunteer’s time, but I always thought I was just going to go down, have a look at some houses, and then go home and life goes on.

But never, never imagined that I would have been involved in the whole response, recovery, and now onto the rebuild it. It's almost kind of ... Even though you have to pinch yourself and I feel very privileged and honoured to be part of it and part of it still, and particularly the role that I've got now, so it's very exciting.

Carl: I think you're right about the initial response. So many of us arrived at Christchurch thinking we'd be here for a matter of days, maybe weeks at best, and then we would return back to our home cities and our families. And that didn't happen for so many people.

John: I can't leave a job unfinished and when we were asked to volunteer for four days and at the end of those four days I knew that there was still such a massive job to do.

I put my hand up and said, "Look, I'm more than happy to stay another week or two," and so I did. I stayed on for two weeks as a volunteer. And I think, going back to that ... did I think I'd be in the position I'm now? I think it's always been that the jobs just not quite finished yet. I still wanted to be here to see it finished, and I think again, that position that I've got, I've got the opportunity to ... I think let's put a full stop on the story because I will be delivering the Anchor Projects for Christchurch from that initial disaster that caused it.

Carl: You're not talking to me much at the moment about structural engineering. You haven't mentioned a spreadsheet or a calculation once. So, tell me about some of those other aspects of the role of the engineer in a situation like this where it's critical to be able to do your job.

John: I think it has to be wound back to what we were doing. Our role ... and that the response period was visual assessments of buildings and damage and making a call. And it was an educated call by your design experience, your engineering knowledge on whether or not that visual damage was going to put public at risk.

John: The fundamental understanding of how a building performs was critically important to getting this right. We were making some calls around reducing cordon size and how when people went into the buildings to get critical business documents and computers, etc. to allow their continuity, but having that fundamental knowledge how a building will perform in the next aftershock, was vitally important.

Carl: So, you're constantly planning for what might be coming ahead?

John: Yeah.

Carl: This isn't just a one-off event, it's a whole series of events and you're into a program of things that could keep happening.

John: We were reminded often when we were in buildings when aftershocks were coming through. It was ... and again, the decision-making had to be, "What was this building? How was this building going to perform if we got another big aftershock?" And not only were we going to be inside it, we were potentially putting other people inside it as well.

Carl: You touched on a number of challenges there and that emergency response, and what we're talking about today is our experiences so that others can learn from that. What would you say was your most challenging aspects?

John: I think it goes back to just ... You need to be technically competent to be able to do that role. I think it was managing personal fatigue and when we were doing the response of going around assessing buildings. We were part of a team, it was a team of four, so not only ... and typically, the structural engineer was the lead in that team. So you're not only managing your own fatigue but you're also needing to check on the fatigue of the others. That was a challenge and you needed to keep that balance right. It was very, very easy to run on adrenaline, get into that robotic kind of mode, and even now and again you need to just do that check.

The other one was the volume of work. There was ... going back to the chaos, the volume of work became more and more evident the longer we were doing the assessments, so that started to get quite challenging.

It didn't really hit me until several months later, the impact on family. I was commuting back and forth to Wellington, I know as you were, and ... I had young kids at the time, and the impact on them when I left the house on a Sunday and not back until Saturday morning, the time away from home, and also the stress on my wife and partners. That was also challenging because they're ... living that remotely, and don't actually they can’t live and breathe except for what you ... you know, I've got control of what I'm doing, they're kind of looking at it on TV and ... you know, the evening phone call. That was challenging and I think that if I was to do something again, I'd probably bring them down. I did eventually do that so that I was able to go home to some form of normality at the end of the day.

Carl: Okay. Yeah, we don't think about these things when we respond, but I daresay if you've been through two or three of these events, you learn a lot and you'd do a lot of things quite differently.

Carl: So, emergency response then transitioned into recovery, a huge challenge in Christchurch around this very broken city. There were still badly damaged buildings, there was a cordon around the CBD, and the government came in with a new piece of legislation and set up a new agency, which you became a key member of. Do you want to talk us through the early days of setting up the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, and what your role was in that?

John: Yes, sure. After the volunteer period, I was asked to come and join the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. We identified that the high-rise buildings, the significant buildings, were going to be challenging. They were critically damaged, and we were going to have to pull a number of them down, and so, me and you lead a very good team of competent structural engineers that went round very systematically and assessed those buildings.

If they were deemed dangerous, and we were given some pretty clear directions on what dangerous was, defined as, we were able to recommend those buildings for demolition. Again, going back to public safety, public good and getting the cordon reduced and being able to get recovery and rebuild going.

So the roles that we had... there was probably two or three in those early days, was carrying on with the assessments and making sure that buildings came down, reviewing building demolition plans and overseeing the demolition to make sure that they were done safely. And we had a pretty good track record of that.

John: The council went out to the community with that 'share an idea' about what they wanted to see in the new city. There was an overwhelming response from the community. It was 150, 160,000 responses and they were basically giving the decision-makers and the city planners ideas of what the public, the Christchurch public, wanted in the new city.

John: So CERA created a unit within the organization, a Central City Development Unit. They were tasked with a pretty hard task of finding a blueprint for the new city based on this sharing idea, opinions that were given. They were given 100 days for that, so while I wasn’t a part of it, I was sitting on the outside because we needed to provide advice to that team who were developing the blueprint round buildings that were still remaining and that we weren't demolishing, and they needed to understand what were the impacts, either building new buildings around those existing buildings, or if we had to pull them down, what did that mean.

John: Then the role for me, when the blueprint was approved and made it to final Anchor Projects, my role was then to manage the vertical builds of those Anchor Projects, which I did through to 2012, '13, '14.
Interviewer: So it's been quite a journey in what is a really short space of time. You landed here in 2011 a volunteer, a structural engineer, you've gone through an emergency response phase, into a recovery phase, demolitions, been into planning the rebuild of the city, and now actually being a part of leading the Anchor Projects and now ultimately responsible for those Anchor Projects. What does that feel like when you look back over five or six years of really busy time?

John: I'm pretty humble for the experience and now defining and helping rebuild these Anchor Projects and off the Anchor Projects become private sector developments. It is an honour to be involved, and I think having a structural engineering background and training, you know, we're quite structured thinkers. We've got structure in our planning and I think that's helped when we were looking at the quantity and quantum and value of the rebuild that we're doing. I think if you look at it and say it too quickly, it becomes quite overwhelming, but it goes back to simple principles — you keep it simple and good planning. I think that engineers are pretty well suited to managing some of these big projects, and in this case, the rebuild.

Carl: When you think about what experience we've had and how that might benefit others outside of New Zealand in particular, we can look back at earthquakes that have happened in San Francisco. I remember one of the early stats that we latched onto when we were looking at Christchurch very much in those early hours after the earthquake, it was in San Francisco they lost 100 buildings in the CBD. It took seven years to recover from that. Christchurch lost thousands of buildings in the CBD, so we naturally assumed it was going to be a much longer period to recover.

My personal view is that we're recovering very quickly. It's hard to see that when you're here on the ground and you're amongst them, but every time a visitor comes to the city now that hasn't been here for months or a year or two, they're amazed by how quickly we are starting to recover.

Carl: So what are some of those key lessons that you think of their recovery to keep their momentum behind them that other cities in the future might be interested in?

John: Look we touched on keeping business continuity. I think that was essential, and I know that central government stepped in and helped with some funding to make sure businesses were able to stay operational. I also think that the central government, they pumped in a lot of money, they set up the Recovery Acts, they set up organizations to be able to act really quickly, so I think without that support of central government, I think that the rebuild and the recovery process would be a lot longer and a lot more protracted.

John: There were some pretty significant powers under that Act that you and I were able to make recommendations on and the powers that be were able to act on. To be able to clear the way for these Anchor Projects to be built, and from what we've seen, and I suppose that speed of recovery, is that private sector actually hooking off those Anchor Projects and developing them. They’re doing exactly what the intent was when the blueprint was defined and those Anchor Projects were landed in the locations they were landed, so central government money, insurance, I think that's another thing that's probably worth a comment. Christchurch was well insured and the insurance money that came into the city helped the private sector come off the back of the central government buildings.

Carl: What about the community response? We saw the volunteer student army, you talked about volunteering yourself for a number of weeks. What was the impact of those early months of volunteer time and energy?

John: From a community-wide response, everybody was looking after everybody. You know, you mentioned the student army, they were out there doing a huge amount of work helping neighbours. Neighbours were helping each other with meals, checking on each other, so I think there was the underlying desire to help. Again, for me, it was an underlying desire to help and also I want to see a job finished. The student army were there as well. They picked up a spade and wheelbarrows to clear liquefaction and they weren't going to stop until they had cleared it. I think they are two examples of that Canterbury way, and people just wanting to help people.

John: I think it's a fundamental humanity thing. People just want to help, and if I can touch on another thing around what can we do globally and what can other people learn, I was in the fortunate position where I had the opportunity to go to Kathmandu after the Nepal earthquake in April and I was able to share how we responded to the earthquakes, how we evaluated buildings, and how we demolished buildings safely. So, there are lessons that can be had and shared. It's great that we're able to share those.

Carl: Yeah. I think that's so true. We saw a couple of years ago Kaikoura and their event, while they didn’t have a big urban population it was still devastating for that community. The way our country was able to respond, having learnt so much from the Canterbury experience and take it to the Kaikoura recovery was incredible to watch. Things just happened so quickly and far more seamlessly because we had that knowledge to fall back on.

Carl: Okay, so John, you talked about earlier becoming an engineer because you were excited about around the construction you saw in Wellington, and the basements, and the '80s was the boom time for the construction industry, particularly in Wellington. Is that still relevant for you now and why you chose to be an engineer, or has that actually changed over time?

John: The fundamental desire to be involved in construction is still there. I'm still driven by it, I love to see cranes going up and steel going up, and I still get excited reinforcing steel. Those are the things structural engineers love.

John: But my path has changed. I'm no longer in that kind of technical design role. I mentioned before, having that engineering background, that structured thinking, that problem-solving that engineers typically have, I think has helped me in that pretty rapid career path that's happened since the earthquake, to the role that I've got now.

John: I also believe in the role that I've got now, I do believe in the benefits of the recovery. The benefits of the structures that we're putting up to help communities, because these are civic assets, these are assets for the people. There's no profit in any of them that we're building, these are for people to come and enjoy, and I believe in those objectives. I believe in the benefits that they're going to have for the wider community around health and well-being and all those kinds of things.

John: So, has it changed my why? I don't think it's changed my why, but I think it's given me a better understanding of what a building can provide, and it's to provide benefits for people.

Carl: That's great. Now, let me take you back to one of your earlier points where you said you chose engineering because you're good at maths and physics and you weren't creative. I would argue now, listening to your story here today, that you are quite creative, and you've probably had to reimagine aspects of your career along this journey as the creativity that will lead to some other problem solving. What would you say to that?

John: I think you're ... Look, you're right. I think if I was to answer the other question again, it probably would be, I'm probably not artistic, but creative and ... I think you have to be creative to problem-solve. I absolutely agree with you. Engineers are creative. We have to be.

Carl: So thank you, John, for joining me here today. I really appreciate your time for coming to talk about the past few years which has been a fantastic journey. I think you can be really proud of what you've achieved.

John: I really appreciate the opportunity. I could talk on the stuff for days and days. There's so much to share and, really, thank you for letting me have this time.

Kalay Maistry: We hope you enjoyed this conversation. Leave a review for us on iTunes or wherever you’re listening – we want to know what you think. Tell a friend or colleague about us and they can find the podcast by searching engineering reimagined where ever they listen to podcasts.

Apple badge Google badge Spotify badge

Aurecon talks to John O'Hagan on the role of engineers in the earthquake recovery

In February 2011, New Zealand experienced devastating earthquakes in the Canterbury region.

Carl Devereux, former New Zealand Regional Director at Aurecon and one of the first responders to the earthquakes, chats with fellow responder John O’Hagan.

What’s the role of the engineer in emergency response and disaster recovery? In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, we talk about the critical contribution that engineers make following an earthquake, from the initial emergency response, to the recovery phase and onto the rebuild of a city.

With earthquake prone cities across the world becoming more densely populated, what lessons can be learnt from the experiences of those involved in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes?

While public safety was paramount, John and Carl discuss the importance of business continuity for the local economy. “One of the very early tasks that we did in that first couple of weeks was escorting business owners back into the premises to get key items that they required to carry on,” said John.

Audio of ABC Sports television coverage of game 3 of the 1989 world series baseball earthquake recording provided under license by ©ABC Sports

Meet our guest and host

Learn more about John O’Hagan and Carl Devereux.

Aurecon's Carl Devereux

Carl Devereux

Former New Zealand Regional Director at Aurecon

Being an active member of the New Zealand Fire Service Urban Search and Rescue team (USAR), Carl had been involved in the emergency response and recovery operations after the February 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, working with agencies such as Civil Defence and the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA). He was also a mentor to a number of emerging professionals within Aurecon and responsible for the highly successful cadet partnership with Ngāi Tahu.

John O'Hagan

John O’Hagan

General Manager for Development, Otakaro Ltd

As the General Manager for Development at Otakaro Ltd, John is leading a team which is responsible for the delivery of the Government-led Anchor Projects after the February 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. He has been involved in the emergency response and earthquake recovery from the outset. John joined the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) as one of its lead engineers in the Significant Buildings Group, overseeing the assessment and demolition of major buildings. He is a chartered professional structural engineer with extensive experience in large and complex project delivery.

Enjoying our podcast?

Subscribe to Engineering Reimagined | Aurecon podcast
Leave a review for Engineering Reimagined | Aurecon podcast

Apple badge Google badge Spotify badge

Aurecon Podcast Engineering Reimagined
To top

Unfortunately, you are using a web browser that Aurecon does not support.

Please change your browser to one of the options below to improve your experience.

Supported browsers: