Christchurch Quake: Day 10

Christchurch changes to recovery mode. Assessment work underway. Lack of official information on earthquake trends.

Thursday 3rd March 2011

On the tenth day since a shallow magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch city in the South Island of New Zealand, emergency services working in the city reached a milestone today. At 3 p.m. the National Civil Defence Controller formally announced a transition from rescue to recovery mode. With 70 people having been rescued from the rubble of Christchurch, no further rescues have been made for over seven days. The recovery of bodies from the rubble of collapsed buildings in the central city will continue, with the death toll rising to 161.

Much of the city remains under night-time curfew, and most of the CBD is closed to all but emergency workers. Restrictions are expected to be relaxed slightly soon, allowing some business owners to re-enter briefly over coming days to gather essential business records and material where it is considered safe to do so.

Work continues in the hardest-hit eastern suburbs of the city where the needs are still for basic services and welfare. 27,000 people are still without electricity, most in these eastern suburbs of the city, with a target of reducing this by half by Sunday. The Brighton sub-station came back online today but portable generators will still need to be deployed in some locations.

The biggest need in eastern suburbs is for sanitation, with residents having been without running water and sewerage services since the earthquake struck on Tuesday last week. Much-needed portable toilet facilities will be deployed to people who have been unable to dig latrines because of the high water table raised by the earthquake.

New Zealand hasn’t experienced a natural disaster of these proportions since the Hawke’s Bay earthquake and Napier firestorm of 1931. In those days, expectations were lower, self-reliance was greater and, of course, the population affected was much less than February’s event.

Many parallels have been drawn with the 1931 event. Both were high-summer events, both earthquakes struck at a time of day when many school students were involved in summertime recreations away from buildings, warships were in port providing additional personnel for the initial response, both occurred during a time of economic recession; but these are only chance similarities. The disparities are much more important.

Hawke’s Bay had no warning, but Canterbury has been subjected to a barrage of earthquakes since the Darfield quake of September 4th last year. The population affected by this latest event is much greater, and Christchurch city was thought to be resilient to a magnitude 6 earthquake.

Most significant are the social change between the two events, and the response of people to an event which struck out of the blue as opposed to an earthquake that occurred after months of relentless aftershocks.

In 1931, the population was more stable and self-reliant. Communities were firmly established and, despite the mobility imposed by the Great Depression, neighbourhoods were more tightly connected. In 2011, we are more mobile by choice, and our more affluent society allows us to move from location to location without the need to interact with the communities in which we reside.

Hawke’s Bay had no discernible warning and earthquake preparedness was not a pre-occupation. Indeed, geological sciences were in their infancy compared with today’s knowledge, and the concept of plate tectonics had not been developed. Earthquake building codes had not been legislated (this was swiftly addressed the following year) but fire protection guidelines had been developed by many local councils in the 1880s, requiring chimneys to be constructed of fire-proof materials and street faces on buildings to be fire resistant.

Cantabrians have experienced hundreds of the thousands of aftershocks which have occurred since the magnitude seven Darfield earthquake of September 4th last year and they have now witnessed three seriously damaging events on September 4th, Boxing Day and now February 22nd. Whilst Hawke’s Bay residents faced a harrowing period of shaking that included two magnitude seven events and a magnitude six quake, Cantabrians were unknowingly subjected to a five-month lead-up to the most serious event. Not surprisingly, they are showing signs of “fraying at the edges.”

Just as in 1931, many have left the area of destruction to escape the privation and on-going tremors. Just as in 1931, most will return to put their affairs in order before resettling or moving on to someplace new.

Despite months of shaking, it is remarkable that a significant number of Christchurch residents had not even made basic provision to survive for the first three days following a major disaster. Some had not secured a basic water supply, had inadequate food supplies set aside, and had no access to a battery-powered radio to keep informed of the developing situation.

Outside the quake zone, some of us are wondering whether the 3-day self-sufficiency guideline recommended by Civil Defence is sufficient, given the fact that running water was still unavailable to a third of Christhcurch city seven days after the earthquake. However, the Christchurch experience shows us that urging self-sufficiency is largely preaching to the converted and increasing the recommended requirements might be tantamount to pushing something unpleasant uphill.

Radio New Zealand National has stepped up to the mark in the aftermath of the February 22nd earthquake, providing authoritative news coverage of events as they unfolded and regular summaries through half-hourly news updates. However, as the earthquake has moved from centre-stage, the resumption of “personality radio” has made it necessary to remain focussed on the news summaries as Kathryn Ryan and Jim Mora provide fill in-between.

It is alleged that 70,000 have fled Canterbury seeking a haven away from the earthquakes. Disturbingly, Jim Mora has a tendency to draw long bows, and this afternoon seemed to imply that the so-called “Moon Man” Ken Ring’s prediction of a large earthquake on March 20th was a significant contributor to the evacuations. From such things are born lynch-mobs and censorship.

This was amply illustrated on TV3’s magazine show Campbell Live on Monday night when John Campbell staged a sham interview with Ken Ring. In an appalling piece of television journalism, Campbell ran rough-shod over his guest, attributing predictions to Ring and then attacking them without giving Ken Ring the opportunity of a response to either. By the time the piece had ended, Campbell had shown himself to be an aggressive, self-opinionated bombast while Ken Ring had calmly weathered the storm and asked for the opportunity to be heard. Open-minded viewers had learnt nothing from the exchange, and supporters of Ring felt justified in believing that he was being muffled for some mysterious reason.

Ken Ring is well-known for his work in predicting weather trends using lunar cycles, and has extended his predictions to seismic activity. A visit to his website in search of an explanation of how his theories work is a bewildering experience. There is plenty of material on long-term weather predictions, seismic activity and, of course, his books, but it is difficult to find a nice simple explanation of the basis for his predictions.

The problem with such predictions is that if you make enough of them, no matter how poorly founded, some will strike the bullseye and it is the successful predictions that stick in the mind of followers. Ring has built up a substantial following for both his weather and earthquake predictions, despite the lack of critical analysis. Like anyone else, he has a right to express his ideas and opinions, and the Internet has provided a suitable platform.

I have said before that orthodox science has become lazy and too many scientists are afraid to indulge in healthy debate on alternative views. This is particularly true in the climate sciences where there is an attitude of “You’re either with us or against us.” Dissent is treason.

Not so long ago, dissent was an opportunity to indulge in healthy and vigorous debate. The exchange allowed scientists to explore their beliefs and understandings and incrementally extend their knowledge. It was exercise for the mind, improved confidence in public speaking and kept science alive and in the public domain.

The earthquake trend for Canterbury is just one of many matters that are coming to the fore. Debate over the adequacy of our building standards has started and thoughts are now turning to how Christchurch city can recover from the disastrous damage downtown. In Napier in 1931, the centre of the city had been burnt to the ground. A “tin-town” of ramshackle corrugated-iron-clad buildings sprang up to become the shopping and commercial hub while rebuilding was underway. A similar temporary relocation of CBD activity is being suggested for Christchurch, but a suitable location has yet to be found.

Questions abound, but drawing comparisons is what we do. On the weekend, one family member in the Christchurch earthquake zone drew a parallel with the east and west Berlin of decades ago. He said in the west they were sitting in the sun, sipping lattes and reading magazines, while in the east it looked like a war zone where even the basic services (energy, water, sewerage) weren’t available.

Another similarity with 1931 is perhaps one we will be keen to forget, but will long thank the practitioners for. In the hours immediately following the earthquake, some grim methods were used to rescue people from the rubble and preserve life in both Napier and Christchurch. The grit shown by all concerned is something to be marvelled at. More might have been necessary in Christchurch had it suffered the ill fate of Napier where the main hospital had to be evacuated and many nurses were killed when the nurses’ home collapsed.

Over the coming weeks Christchurch needs to turn itself around and begin the long haul to normality. This requires the residents to tackle the task of cleaning up or emptying their homes depending on whether they are habitable or not. Their attention will turn to resuming work and recalling evacuated family members and trying to return to some semblance of normal life. The funerals will be held and the long process of grieving and overcoming trauma will begin.

We will all be wondering whether our building codes are adequate and how the battered city can best be rebuilt and its wonderful character retained. But for some, one question will be uppermost.

Will there be another big earthquake and it will it strike on or around the 20th of March?

Ken Ring thinks there is an increased likelihood, but is a little vague about where it will strike. The shell-shocked residents of Canterbury don’t know, but those who have been following Ken Ring’s predictions are understandably nervous.

With Ken Ring in one corner, they are stuck in the middle. In the opposite corner is … silence. The response from our scientists is deafeningly quiet. A lot of public and insurance funding goes into the GeoNet project and GNS Science. We are happy to have them beavering away on their scientific studies, but they have a public duty to perform here at this time of uncertainty.

There is plenty of talent within GNS Science to address the short-term prospects for on-going earthquake activity in Canterbury. Dr Warwick Smith is a seasoned campaigner well-versed in staring down a camera and answering curly questions in a calm, reliable fashion. Amongst others, Russ van Dissen and John Beaven, armed with a few diagrams and their unique humour, can explain the most difficult aspects of tectonic activity and have open minds for debating alternative theories.

What is needed here is a reasoned examination of Ring’s theories and an appropriately reasoned response. Anything less will simply fan the flames and increase the anxiety being felt in Canterbury. An arrogant silence is not good enough. Science has a duty to step forward and put its case in a calm, cool, well-reasoned way.

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