Tragedy in Christchurch

First official death toll has been released. Main hospital damaged but operating. Triage and welfare centres opened. Airport and port closed. Telecommunications networks damaged and stretched.

Tuesday 22nd February 2011

The tragedy of today’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch is slowly unfolding as the Canterbury region moves into a rescue phase as night descends.

National Civil Defence reports that police have set the death toll at 65 as at 7 o’clock this evening.

It is thought that a number of people are still trapped in collapsed buildings and attention is focussed on the Canterbury Television building – a five-storey building that has collapsed and is still on fire.

Civil Defence reports that Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2 (Christchurch) is inoperable, Task Force 1 (Palmerston North) is being mobilised and Task Force 3 (Auckland) is in Christchurch. USAR support from Australia is being mobilised and, according to National Radio, may already be en route.

The main public hospital in Christchurch has experienced significant infrastrutcure damage according to the CEO of the District Health Board, but is operating. The Intensive Care Unit is full, and some patients may be transferred. Fifty patients from elsewhere in the hospital will be transferred to other hospitals shortly.

The Accident and Emergency Department has seen a significant number of people since the earthquake, and a number of major injuries have been treated. Patients are continuing to walk through the door. The hospital has had electricity supply issues but another emergency generator is being installed tonight. There are issues with water and sewage, but the hospital is coping. Extra medical staff from other DHB’s will start arriving this evening.

A small, makeshift hospital has been established at Latimer Square. Triage centres have been opened at Latimer Square, the Sanitarium Factory at Papanui, Spotlight Mall at Beckenham, the Bealey Avenue Medical Centre, Princess Margaret Hospital and Christchurch Hospital according to Civil Defence.

Welfare Centres had been opened at Burnside High School and Addington Racecourse, but the Addington site has had to close because of damage it sustained during the afternoon’s aftershocks. Latest information from Civil Defence is that Welfare Centres have also been opened at Papanui High School, Lyttelton Recreation Centre, Brooklands Community Centre and Akaroa Senior School.

Christchurch International Airport has been closed to commercial traffic and is not expected to open for domestic traffic until tomorrow morning. Both domestic and international terminals have been damaged, but runways are available for military and emergency traffic. Runway lighting is intact and operating.

The port of Lyttelton is closed, and the town has sustained significant building damage. The Lyttelton Tunnel has reopened for emergency services traffic only because the operations centre for the tunnel has been damaged.

Telecommunications networks have been damaged but are operating. Some mobile network towers have been rendered inoperable, and electricity outages may result in further sites going offline overnight as batteries fail. Text messaging on mobile networks is working but there is a lengthy delay in txt messages getting through.

The Public Switched Telephone Network is intact, but residents relying on cordless phones may be unable to access it if their power is off. The extent of damage to distribution lines to houses is not known at this stage. The 111 emergency service is operating but is carrying heavy traffic loads causing delays in calls being answered at times.

The tragedy for Christchurch comes after months of aftershocks that followed the magnitude 7.1 earthquake of September 4th last year. Residents have been stressed by the continual earthquakes, but the fact that the initial quake occurred early in the morning was seen as fortunate in preventing serious deaths. At the other end of the scale, today’s aftershock struck in the middle of a business day, was felt much more strongly due to its closer proximity to the city and shallowness, and occurred before much of the damage caused by the major earthquake of September had been repaired.

[ Compiled from data supplied by the Ministry of Civil Defence, GeoNet, and local contacts. ]

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