Gisborne Back On Its Feet

Following the shock of the magnitude 6.8 earthquake near Gisborne on Thursday night, local authorities and the community have worked together to get the city back on its feet.

Most of us living in New Zealand have experienced a few earthquakes, but few of us have experienced big ones because of the relatively quiet geological period we have lived through since the 1940s. The quakes most have experienced have consisted of a jolt, a rumble and a few seconds of shaking that, in the more exciting events, throws a few things off shelves.

As the video clip from the Gisborne shop that has appeared on several television news bulletins shows, the experience of a big quake is rather different. We are alerted by the jolt of the p-wave passing through the area and have time to wonder what’s coming next as the rumbling sound, often described as a fast-approaching diesel locomotive at full power, begins building. Then the shaking starts. In a big earthquake this can last for tens of seconds or minutes.

During this stage, our senses are overloaded as our normally stable world is literally turned on its head. We have time to watch things spill from cupboards and shelves, heavy furniture rock and move across floors or turn over, paintings clap against walls and prized possessions trashed. And then there’s the noise. The rumble of the quake, the squeaks and bangs from the house structure, the sound of things breaking, and the thumps from more distant parts of the house as items crash to the floor.

The experience of a big quake leaves a lasting impression on those who live through it. They have time to evacuate from the movie theatre to stand outside watching lamp posts swaying and hear power lines twanging. They will remember sitting in the car watching shop windows break while they realise they are strapped in by the seat belts and have no time to find a solid object to shelter under. They’ll remember the spectacle of waves of water washing out of a swimming pool.

But not immediately. As soon as the shaking stops, they enter their own version of the containment, assessment and recovery routine. The containment phase begins in their immediate environment, as they clear a way to the exit, shut off the water supply to stop leaks, pop next door to see if the neighbours are alright.

The assessment phase begins without conscious thought. Should they evacuate to higher ground in case there’s a tsunami? The hot water from the cylinder needs to be mopped up. That broken crockery will need to be swept up. Family have to be checked on. Some have to ignore their domestic environment and go to work to help others.

The long recovery phase begins with the cleanup work as debris is cleared away. Books are returned to shelves. Precarious items are pushed back from the edge of tables and shelves, the fridge is pushed back into its alcove, the stove is nudged back into place and the TV set is picked up off the floor.

Residents of Gisborne are now well into the recovery phase following Thursday night’s magnitude 6.8 earthquake. The speed with which the authorities and the public have acted and co-operated is truly impressive, and work has continued apace in domestic, commercial and government environments.

The hospital staff worked wonders in turning a darkened, damaged hospital into a fully functioning complex again. Power was quickly restored and the three operating theatres that were damaged as a result of the quake have been fully restored. The parts of the complex where damage remains are being worked around, and thoughts have already turned to the replacement of the damaged earthquake protection systems that absorbed the energy of the tremors.

Precarious structures in the CBD have been identified, and the commercial sector now has certainty as to whether individual businesses can resume trading or need to relocate to safer structures. Members of the public can now return to patronising local businesses knowing that unsafe structures and other hazards have been cordoned off for their protection. The speed with which building inspection teams completed their work is a credit.

The decentralised Civil Defence model which devolves responsiblility for managing disasters to local authorities and communities now appears to be working. After the initial debacles of the Manawatu floods and Gisborne tsunami alert of recent years, there have been two notable successes this year – the Northland floods and the Gisborne earthquake. This latest emergency event has shown that local council organisations, government agencies and communities can pitch-in together to resolve issues and return a community to normality.

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management has improved its communication skills slightly, but niggles remain. A serious problem still exists in the broadcast of timely, accurate and authoritative information in emergency situations.

But Gisborne is well and truly into the recovery phase and the state of civil emergency was lifted at 5:12 p.m. yesterday. Local Civil Defence staff and government agencies have done well, and the district council has handed the situation to recovery manager John Clarke. Only 18 people remain in temporary accommodation.

Locals felt one aftershock this morning, Sunday 23rd December 2007. The magnitude 3.9 quake, which struck at 11:49 a.m. was located 40 km south-east of Gisborne at a depth of 35 km.

Hearteningly, the sound of the old town clock distinctively playing its familiar tune has been heard on several broadcasts reminding those of us who are outside the area that the old home town’s heart is still beating.

[data from Gisborne District Council media releases, and the Geonet project and its sponsors EQC, GNS Science and FRST.]

One Response to “Gisborne Back On Its Feet”

  1. Ken says:

    I forgot to mention the speed with which the local electricity lines company got onto faults on feeds to individual properties. I’ve heard of two cases that impressed locals.

    A link to the local newspaper, The Gisborne Herald, has been added to the Sites of Interest tab. They have lists of “ticketed” buildings and, of course, photographs as well as other stories on the quake.

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