Rubble in Christchurch

What Christchurch did next

Chapter 1: A city thrown into crisis


Aurecon's Craig Stevenson and Dr Jan Kupec with New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key (middle)

“Ultimately it was a community response. Many Urban Search & Rescue members also lost homes and it was that human insight that resonated. It was our community involvement that really helped people understand that everyone was trying their best during the perils of reality.”

– Dr Jan Kupec, Technical Director – Ground Engineering, Aurecon

The series of tremors that rocked the Canterbury region began with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake striking on 4 September 2010. Despite the widespread damage, the community committed to carry on with their lives with as much ‘normality’ as possible throughout the aftermath, which was marred by thousands of aftershocks. But when a magnitude 6.3 quake struck less than six months later on 22 February 2011 near the heart of Christchurch, with one of the greatest-ever ground accelerations recorded in the world, already weakened buildings and roads were either severely damaged or completely destroyed.

Christchurch was a city thrown into crisis. Hospitals faced mounting admissions for serious injuries; hundreds of residents had lost their homes; shaking had caused the soil in many areas to behave like a liquid (‘liquefaction’), producing around 400 000 tons of silt in the eastern suburbs. These almighty challenges forced New Zealand’s Central Government to declare a State of Emergency. Due to significant building damage, the central business district (CBD) was immediately evacuated.

Those two earthquakes required very different responses. Post-disaster response following the September 2010 quake focused on restoring building stability in order to reopen the city and allow people to return to their homes. The February 2011 event centred around live rescues, requiring engineers at major collapse sites to advise on search locations, building stability, fall hazards, shoring and debris removal. Work then extended to victim recovery, property protection, retrieval of essential items, including medical records, and accessing infrastructure, including critical transport routes and generators powering essential services.

Christchurch’s heroes

Both of these responses were underpinned by an incredibly practical approach to post-disaster enablement as first responders and stakeholders banded together to gird Christchurch’s loins as it, still shuddering from shock, prepared to lift its head. It was these first-responders who led by example, instilling confidence and giving hope to locals that their city could rise above adversity.

Aurecon’s first responders

As a local business, Aurecon lost its office and, as residents, many of our people lost their homes. Our people and our clients were all affected and because we are all intrinsically part of the Christchurch community, we were determined to give back to Christchurch. We wanted to show our commitment to its future. From the very first tremor in 2010, Aurecon has put Christchurch at the forefront.

The scale of the destruction required all available Aurecon engineers to deploy to Christchurch immediately, with some 20 engineering specialists activated to assist the rescue effort.

The USAR effect

The role of Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams is critical in locating, rescuing and medically stabilising victims trapped in confined spaces following a structural collapse.

Aurecon’s first responders to the February 2011 disaster included three specialist New Zealand USAR engineers. Christchurch-based Dr Jan Kupec, a Technical Director and Ground Engineer, was joined by former Technical Director at Aurecon Carl Devereux and Technical Director Craig Stevenson, both Structural Engineers. Carl and Craig immediately boarded New Zealand Airforce aeroplanes bound for Christchurch to support the New Zealand Fire Service USAR team’s live rescue of 69 people.

Carl, Craig and Jan had previously undertaken intensive USAR training with the New Zealand Fire Service but, as Carl recalls, they still found that “the initial recovery was a daunting process as we didn’t have a blueprint of what to do.”

During those early days, Carl, Craig and Jan, together with volunteers from the New Zealand Fire Service, were all instrumental in live rescue, victim recovery, emergency shoring and building stabilisation works. This saw them crawling through collapsed building voids and over rubble piles.

Paul Burns, a Task Force Leader from the New Zealand Fire Service USAR division, says it was one of the largest USAR mobilisation and deployments in New Zealand. “A standout was the role of USAR engineers in the rescue phase to ensure the safety of emergency workers and civilians. Their enthusiasm, professional approach and total commitment were critical to such a successful deployment.”

Mobilising crucial support

At the same time, Aurecon’s Alistair Greig, a Technical Director and Head of Survey, immediately mobilised 16 Aurecon surveyors to support the USAR operation in the CBD. Alistair set up his home garage as a centre of operations for his team of local and seconded surveyors to monitor in excess of 20 buildings within the CBD.

“Our surveyors ultimately acted as a ‘warning system’ for the rescuers,” he says. “Many rescuers had to crawl through confined spaces in the damaged buildings searching for survivors and survey monitoring was required to ensure structures had not moved following the constant aftershocks. The look of relief on the faces of the USAR team was sobering, especially when they were convinced of a building’s movement after an aftershock.”

Working around the clock, this team rapidly became critical to the USAR response as the demand to perform rescue missions for survivors increased.

Stabilising nature

While much of the initial focus was on Christchurch’s CBD, the nearby Port Hills suburb of Sumner was one of the worst affected, suffering significant failures of cliffs and steep slopes. As a local resident familiar with the geography, Aurecon Senior Engineering Geologist, Camilla Gibbons, was immediately engaged to undertake preliminary inspections to identify imminent risks.

Camilla uncovered a large landslip of around 1.3 hectares and became responsible for monitoring and mapping this area, which threatened the sole main road into Sumner. Over time, more than 700 properties in Port Hills were purchased by the authorities due to high life-safety risk.

Camilla conducted regular presentations to keep the Port Hills community informed, penned a weekly website update and fielded calls from concerned residents.

A resident’s story

Margot Christeller, Christchurch residentFor Margot Christeller, the appeal of pre-earthquake Christchurch was that it was “a small, nimble city, easy to get around with plenty of opportunities and options,” and it became a community that Margot was at the very heart of on that day in February.

“I was in the car park next door to the CTV building when it happened. I crawled out of my car and saw the building collapse. It didn’t really compute and I was covered in dust and simply followed a friend who said ‘There must be people in here’.

“By this stage there were around five of us lifting material and we saw people just sitting there so we took them down from the rubble. Then there was a baby and it was when the baby started to scream that I realised I was part of something beyond comprehension and that was when I felt overwhelmingly afraid.

“But seeing significantly damaged people and then the aftershock, which felt like standing in jelly, is when I just stopped being afraid. I think the level of violent shock moved me to a calm place, focused on survival and helping others.

“At the same time I was trying to reach my family, remote texting via my sister in Queenstown as communications systems were all down. When the first big fire engine arrived, I then realised that there is someone here that knows what to do and so I passed the baton and made a decision to leave the CTV building to find our daughter. I remember the noise of the sirens the most, but not the people.”

A CEO’s story

Peter Townsend, CEO, Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, recalls: “The story of the Christchurch business community’s refusal to lie down in what was a cataclysmic event is one that needs to be remembered. The lessons learned will be applied in future national and international disasters. It wasn’t about having water and bandages or civil defence gear in your building, it was about having backup systems and being able to locate your staff and having a Plan B for accommodation. It was about looking at your business support systems, checking they were resilient and, most importantly, it was about understanding what you were insured for.

“Our citizens really proved their ‘can do’ attitude by picking up each other’s books and bricks. We saw incredible community strength with all who are assisting us with the rebuild and just a determination to get onto it.”

Peter Townsend, CEO - Canterbury Employers' Chambers of Commerce

Peter Townsend talks to Aurecon about the effects on local business, its economy and attracting investment back into the city.

A rescuer’s story

Carl DevereuxA year on, Carl Devereux recounted his initial thoughts in an interview with the Nelson Mail, saying:

“It was made all the more dramatic by floodlights and shadows cast by the fire trucks and the twisted wreckage of a lift tower still standing. We were soon crawling over the wreckage. I had always been worried about how I would cope in a major rescue operation, but I was surprised how quickly the training kicked in, as well as the knowledge from countless hours of studying earlier building collapses.

“International agencies advised us on protocol as we had not witnessed destruction on this scale. Working alongside those agencies and government broadened our thinking as to how to best map our way through the recovery. Decisions were made on a daily basis. There was no time for planning as the city was on its knees.”

An employee’s story

Alistair GreigFor Alistair Greig, Aurecon Technical Director and Head of Survey and a long-time resident of Christchurch, the tremor that day in February was so violent that he hit his head hard on a desk. “When everything stopped shaking, I remember seeing people underneath their desks. Initially, we weren’t too rattled. We assumed it was just another aftershock.” But Alistair followed protocol and coordinated the safe evacuation of the 50 Aurecon staff in the office. He then joined hundreds of city workers walking long distances home with limited access to communication.

“People in Christchurch weren’t shocked to experience another earthquake, but we were shocked to get such a big one. My sobering reality was in surreal observations of a shattered glass shopfront filled with expensive jewellery laid undisturbed on the ground, and handbags, half-eaten pizzas and glasses of wine left behind in once bustling cafes.”

“I am so incredibly proud of our team. They pulled together to get the job done while working in extremely stressful conditions and bearing witness to some sad and horrific scenes. Many of them then went home to their own earthquake reality.”

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