Christchurch earthquake a wakeup call for B.C. officials

June 7, 2011
Amy Dove
Tags: newsalumni

If Brock Henson and Rob Johns hadn't seen it with their own eyes, they wouldn't have believed it.

In all their years as emergency planners, for the District of Saanich and the City of Victoria respectively, they had never imagined that an entire downtown core could be closed to the public long term. When a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook Christchurch, New Zealand Feb. 21 that is exactly what happened though. Buildings were too compromised to open the streets, effectively locking in more than 2,000 cars, business records and personal effects of the people who were in the area that day.

"You can imagine if downtown Victoria was stopped and what that would do the region as a whole," Johns said as a way of perspective.

The men were part of a local team that travelled to Christchurch after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September and again after the devastating second quake on Feb. 22. They went to lend a hand to emergency officials there, but also to learn from the experience so they could better prepare Vancouver Island residents and local governments for a similar event.

Witnessing the aftermath of two very different earthquakes at the same location was valuable, Johns said, noting there are some striking similarities between Christchurch and Victoria, B.C. The population is comparable, as are the demographics of people who live there. The government structures have parallels and the geographic location is similar - both cities are port cities on an island.

"It was a real opportunity to compare apples to apples with respect to how they were responding," said Henson, who graduated from Royal Roads MA in Disaster and Emergency Management program in 2009.

The age and type of buildings in Christchurch's downtown core were also very similar to Victoria's, Johns said, noting that made it even easier to imagine what Victoria would look like in the event of a major earthquake.

The trips were the men's first experiences in an earthquake zone. It was the scope and scale of the disaster that struck Henson. "Even if your home wasn't damaged and you were personally unaffected there were still impacts to your daily life," he said. The stores you shopped at were closed, your daily patterns altered.

"After the first earthquake there were a lot of lessons for myself, as a firefighter, on how overwhelming it was for emergency service individuals," he said. When a disaster happens there are so many calls that the response guidelines that may have worked for one-off events no longer apply. "Our response guidelines must be extremely dynamic and change on the fly," he said.

After the second earthquake tremendous issues around recovery came to light. Once the emergency response was over, a litany of planning issues arose. The amount of public works that needs to be done now will take years, Henson said. In some ways it's a great opportunity and challenge for city planners as they can redesign an established city core, Johns added.

Logistical tasks also came to light that otherwise hadn't been considered. The task of reuniting owners with the estimated 2,300 vehicles trapped downtown is a good example, Henson said. Buildings contain vital business records, but how do you decide which ones to task emergency crews with retrieving? "It had never crossed my mind," Henson said.

Since the October quake, Christchurch has experienced more than 5,000 aftershocks. That constant reminder of the earthquake continues to rattle buildings and people. "In talking to many of the residents and responders who were downtown during the earthquake, they were in no hurry to get back downtown," Henson said. "It had emotionally scared them. It really shakes your faith in living on solid ground."

It will take years to rebuild the downtown, where it is estimated one third of the buildings will have to be demolished. What to do in the meantime isn't as clear, but there is a real need for a plan to keep residents from permanently leaving the area, Henson said.

From a North American perspective, there is a lot of time and resources put into preparedness and response, but we have a long way to go in respect to mitigation and recovery, the men said. There needs to be solid planning around medium- and long-term shelter to avoid an exodus from cities, Henson added.

"How do we encourage people to stay and how do we build back better," he questioned. "We need to talk about how the community is going to recover. We are never going to be able to prevent or respond to an event in a way that the event itself is not going to be a disaster. We can look very hard at how we can all make the recovery process much faster."