Training & Education

What the U.S. Can Learn from the Christchurch Earthquake

Learning from experience is an important element of our knowledge about disasters that affect major urban areas.

Learning from experience, including that of other countries, is an important element of our knowledge about earthquakes and other disasters that affect major urban areas. The United States can learn from a recent report that assessed the response to the damaging earthquake that affected Christchurch and the surrounding Canterbury Region in New Zealand in February 2011.

The event’s aftermath brought to the fore issues frequently faced in the U.S., such as how to scale up an emergency response, how to overcome organizational deficiencies and how to maintain continuity in a community that is suffering from major outages of power, water and sewage systems. Although New Zealand’s form of government and governance system for emergency management differs from that found in the U.S., there is still much to learn from the New Zealand event.

The Facts

Christchurch is a city of 348,000 where, during the middle of a workday, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake occurred. The epicenter was close to the city center, and the disaster was a complete surprise since there was no knowledge of a fault in that location.

Christchurch Earthquake By the Numbers

185 people were killed and 1,500 to 2,000 injured, 164 seriously.

About 66 percent of businesses in Christchurch were affected, 20 percent of which had long-term damage from the earthquake.

220 building inspection teams assessed nearly 448,000 residential properties and found that:

  • 5,000 properties were in the red zone (not feasible to rebuild on the land at present time);
  • 10,000 were in the orange zone(engineers must undertake further study); and
  • 1,000 were in the gray zone(homes can be repaired and rebuilt).

About 26,000 homes were vacant because they were unsafe for reoccupation or serious soil stability issues remained. (These numbers changed over time and some zone names changed also.)

While the national electric grid survived, extensive damage occurred to local networks, with about 75 percent outage in Christchurch initially. However, power was restored to more than 50 percent in the first 24 hours.

The water supply to more than 40 percent of residents was damaged, as was sewer service
to about 50 percent of the population.

Estimated total cost: $20 billion to $30 billion.

After strong ground shaking, as well as significant liquefaction and landslides, the impact on all sectors was high. Most of the city’s central business district was damaged beyond repair, as was the hallmark cathedral in the city center. In addition, tens of thousands of local homes were damaged.

This was the second major earthquake in the Canterbury Region within six months. The first occurred on Sept. 4, 2010, about 25 miles west of Christchurch and, though it was a magnitude 7.1 earthquake, did not kill anyone.

The Canterbury Region is still recovering from the September 2010 earthquake and some of the buildings and infrastructure are still weakened from the first quake. Response and recovery organizations also have had continuing problems.

The city is a small island nation (with a  population of 4.3 million people) whose nearest neighbor is more than 1,250 miles away. Mutual aid would have to come from a long distance.

The Report

Most of the information summarized thus far was taken from the recently released report commissioned by the New Zealand government. The report, Review of the Civil Defense Emergency Management Response to the 22 February Christchurch Earthquake, was conducted under a competitive contract sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management. 

Completed in June 2012 and released to the public on Oct. 4, the 243-page report provides a detailed account of the event and its impacts, focusing on the response phase. The assessment was done by a team of experienced, independent experts, with three representatives from New Zealand, one from Australia and one from the U.S.

The report covers the Ministry of Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM, the national agency responsible for disasters) response from the Feb. 22, 2012 earthquake to April 30, 2012. On that date, the response phase officially ended and the recovery process was taken over by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. The stated purpose of the review was to “identify the practices that should be reinforced and identify the processes and policies that warrant improvements.”

The report’s major findings were:

  • The duplication of control and EOCs between Christchurch city and the regional CDEM group was not only inefficient, but also put people and property at risk.
  • Many people who were called upon to manage or staff the EOCs had neither the training nor the capability to lead during a major emergency, despite their skills to do other jobs in normal times.
  • Community groups played a major part in the response, but two-way flows of information and provision of resources need to be improved.
  • The needs of the business community and the preservation of jobs need to be made a specific objective during emergency response and emergency organization, and [the existing] structure needs modification to forge a better link.
  • The position of the CDEM as a small element in the broad portfolio of the Department of Internal Affairs hampered its relationships with major departments in preparation for and during emergencies.

One feature was strikingly apparent: Organizations of any kind that were well prepared in advance responded much better than those that were not.

Claire B. Rubin, a researcher and consultant in emergency management in the Washington, D.C., area, heads the firm Claire B. Rubin & Associates.

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