Soaring to Mt Aspiring with Alex

Soaring to Mt Aspiring with Alex

Friday, September 24, 2010

The after Aftermath of Earthquakes

Nearly three weeks after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that destroyed parts of our city and disrupted life on a huge basis, things have settled down. The state of emergency has been lifted, for many people life is business as usual. In our house things go on as they always have, even though we are living in a house that will probably be condemned as costing more to repair than it is worth.

Huge areas of the city are fine. The areas that aren’t though, really aren’t. Houses are unliveable, the sewers and water pipes are all destroyed. Many streets have rows of portaloos lined up on the footpath.  Just up the road from us the road has been torn up and water and other utilities repaired and the whole lot replaced. All the houses from three past us to the corner, about 6 houses, have been “red carded”. That means that not only are they unliveable but they are so unsafe the owners aren’t allowed back inside to collect their stuff. They have lost it ALL. Thank goodness that is not us.

I have a friend who is a builder. It was he that I called on to check out that our house was safe to be in a couple of days after the quake. He’s signed up for one “tour” with the Earthquake Commission as an assessor and will probably sign on for one more. A “tour” is three weeks, working 10 days straight, one day off and back for another 10 days. Apparently there are 100 assessment teams on the ground. Each team averages 3 houses a day, and there are 68,000 damage claims to be assessed. Take a moment to work out the maths.

The assessors too can’t do this for ever; most have their own businesses that they’ve put aside to do this work. You can see why I don’t expect our place to be seen any time soon. Then when we do, finding builders to do any work for us is obviously going to take time too. If anyone has kids wondering what to do with their lives, taking on a building apprenticeship right now seems like a good idea. That and plumbing.

The aftershocks have decreased markedly. There are hardly any and they are generally small. For quite a while there would be a really strong one around 11pm, just when everyone was nodding off to sleep (well most people anyway). It left people very shaken and uneasy and scared to sleep. A lot of people were taking time away somewhere else in the country or even over the Tasman, just to be able to sleep easily for a couple of nights.

As for what is happening around the city, I thought I’d share the earthquake related news from yesterday’s (23 Sept 2010) Christchurch Press newspaper with you. We start with the headline Despairing plea for help. Christchurch people still without showers and toilets in the earthquake-damaged homes have made an emotional plea for more help. About 100 Avonside residents gathered on the silt-covered road and cracked footpaths of Ackland Ave yesterday, upset at the lack of communication from local government. People were unhappy that no one could give them any idea of how long it would take to get any basic amenities running again. There are emergency grants for people unable to live in their homes, but these people can live in theirs, they just have no amenity services. There was also anger that rent still has to be paid, that appears to be at the landlord’s discretion. There were no real answers given in this piece besides the council saying they would urgently bring in more portaloos.

The other two stories on the front page had nothing to do with the earthquake.

Page 3. Building repairs too dear, say owners. Two Christchurch heritage buildings badly damaged in the earthquake will be too expensive to save, the owners say. Over the next 10 days, city councillors will decide if three damaged heritage buildings need to be demolished. The fate of heritage buildings and the rebuild of the central city is shaping up into an interesting debate. Many people are for knock them down, rebuild and get on with things quickly. Others are calling for a more reasoned decision arguing that even if it takes longer, surely it is worth taking the time to see if these building really need to go, if facades at least can’t be saved? The whole look of the city will change if we are not very careful. Personally I love the way Christchurch has a mix of old and new buildings, a feeling of history, I don’t want to see it gone.

The next earthquake related news isn’t until page 7. That in itself says a lot about Christchurch’s recovery. This one about something that seems a little forgotten by the city, the surrounding farm land that has taken a pounding, Environment Canterbury rates likely to rise to restore farmland. Landowners who want to continue farming the flooded paddocks surrounding Halswell and Tai Tapu are being warned a rates rise will be needed to pay for major earthquake remedial work. That seems a bit rough when city rates haven’t been cited to rise in spite of the huge amount of repair of infrastructure that is going to have to occur.

Sadly on page 9 we get Theatre survives earthquake, but not hoons. The heritage building the Theatre Royal is one of those “classic” theatre buildings with the plaster work ceilings and stalls, circle and gods seating, a beautiful building and a lovely place to go see a live show. Anyway, due to renovation work that’s not long been finished it survived just fine, but then some idiots drove a car through the antique street doors! Yep, life is back to normal. The idiots are back on the streets. The paper is now covering the court news again too. The courts are back in session.

The business section predicts that the Economy might boom like Napier. Napier is a NZ city that was levelled in a quake back in 1931. Canterbury gross domestic product is likely to plummet 2.1 percent in the September quarter, because of the 7.1 earthquake, an economist says, but the rebuild could lead to a boom. The 1931 Napier earthquake provides some historical context to a recovery from the Sept 4 quake. Economists have worked with Treasury’s estimate of the cost of the disruptive earthquake being $4 billion, or 2.1 percent of gross domestic product. Figures like this are interesting. There are starting to be lots of figures floating around. 80,000 claims expected to be filed with the EQC and insurance companies. $4 million worth of food destroyed in warehouses. I can tell you that it means diddly squat from where I sit.

The opinions columns and letters pages are still full of quake stuff, but the letters show an interesting trend. The local body elections are getting some play again and people are doing their best to remind people of the (in their opinion) poor record of our current mayor for most of his term. No one had anything bad to say about him during the emergency, they’re all very careful to point that out, but please, they are saying, remember the controversies of his time in office. People are also frustrated with what they see as the “wrong” people placed in the committee in charge of rebuilding the central city and deciding the fate of heritage buildings. Yet if we’d chosen these people by a public vote the council would have been beaten up for taking too long when urgent action was needed. In other words the public bashing machine has reawakened. It really is business as usual.

This is a snapshot of my world, right now. We personally feel unsettled but realise we can do nothing but sit and wait. My brain is turning back on and I’m functioning again. The next issue of SoaringNZ is nearly ready for the design team of Rosalie and Le-Ann. Both of their houses survived. The printing company had to outsource work while their printers were off line; they had moved off their concrete foundations. They couldn’t reset them until the worst of the aftershocks had finished. By the time we got to print in 2 weeks they expect to be back to normal.

We have been very fortunate that the ghastly weather that seems to have afflicted the rest of the country, unseasonal spring snow storms in Southland and flooding in the North Island have missed Canterbury. Because of the topography of the Southern Alps, while the rest of the country has been suffering we’ve been experiencing warm lovely spring weather. The flowering cherry tree outside my bedroom is just gorgeous. I took the dog out to the botanic gardens on Wednesday to romp through the daffodil lawn. He wasn’t impressed (because he had to stay on his lead) but I was.

I’ve started looking at house plans and realised I don’t want a different house. I want this one back, but maybe I can tweak the plan a little to get the bathroom in the right place. It may actually be fun to do this. Thank goodness for full insurance. If I’ve learnt anything out of this it is the value of being fully insured. That’s my lesson for today. Stay insured, and as I’ve mentioned before, put bottles of water in your freezer.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Random Musings on the Aftermath of Earthquakes

Random Musings on the Aftermath of Earthquakes

In fiction after the earthquake the heroes stop and catch their breath before racing off to save/warn the city/people downstream of the impending collapse of the water reservoir/damn/nuclear power station. Or maybe they are out of there and chasing the baddy (who possibly caused the quake) across the county/state/world before he can do it again. Either that or they congratulate themselves on their survival and start shagging like bunnies.

In real life it is nothing like that. Life becomes surreally normal. I sit here in my house that will probably be condemned, finally catching up on my email backlog, preparing the next issue of SoaringNZ and listening to the rugby on the TV in the room behind me. The power is on, the water and sewer work, the heat pump is keeping us warm. In other words it is a normal Friday night for the McCaw household except that there may or may not be an aftershock.

For many other Christchurch families life is not normal, not at all. People are still in shelters or bunking in with relatives. Many as well as losing their homes have lost their jobs as well. It will be a long time before things are normal for everyone. It is a quiet and non dramatic form of un normality now, not the sort people write books about.

The following are a few thoughts I’ve had over the past week regarding earthquakes and their aftermaths.

A lucky Earthquake

It seems inconceivable that a major city can survive a major earthquake with no loss of life!

Timing of course was everything. The quake struck at 4.35 am Saturday morning. The majority of people were home in their beds. People who had been out and about Friday night clubbing had mainly gone home. The streets that all the masonry cascaded onto in the city centre were mainly empty. No one was in the businesses and shops in the old buildings in the city centre that collapsed. No one was on the roads that opened up into enormous holes.

People were injured by falling chimney bricks coming through ceilings and onto beds. However there had been a short jolt just before the big one and that had woken most people and sent them for cover, or at least out of bed to see what was happening before the big one. There are many stories of beds covered in masonry that people had vacated moments earlier.

All buildings in NZ built in the last 20 years (don’t quote me on that timing) have to meet stringent earthquake standards. Most of them did. Older buildings have been strengthened to meet earthquake codes over a similar time period. Christchurch was shaken, most of it didn’t collapse.

No Loss of Life! Just incredible!

It seems to me that if you are a mayor facing a dubious prospect of re-election, but you can keep your head and say what the people need to hear you say during a crisis, you can probably be assured of getting back in. Bob Parker was the perfect Mayor-under-pressure. He didn’t put a foot wrong. I’m predicting a landslide victory.

One thing I don’t think anybody anticipated with earthquakes was sand. I had learnt back when I was doing earth sciences at Uni, that in a Christchurch earthquake liquification could be a problem. I thought that meant that the ground would become soft and buildings would become unstable because of that. Yes, that is exactly what happened, but these “sand volcanoes” were never mentioned. Everywhere around the city, some places worse than others, thousands of litres of water and sand were forced from under the ground. The ground compressed, water can’t be compressed, something had to give and it all shot up, with force and often through concrete floors.

The world in the aftermath has become a world of sand. HUGE amounts of sand. The gardens, roads, and street side gutters are full of it. As it dries it turns to dust. My fishpond is full of it. The drive way and lawn are covered in it. I can’t keep it out of my house. University students are out all around the city shovelling it up. People are frantically trying to get it out of the gutters before it rains again and causes flooding. Where are they going to put all that sand? Where are they going to put all the rubbish, full stop?

As an aside, we are lucky on so many levels that the predicted back weather for Sunday never came to much.

The Water table
The water table seems to have risen. Our creek bed at the back of the house is a least 30cm (1foot) higher than it was (full of sand) and the water is right up to the top of the banks. During the quake itself the water level came all the way up to the dog kennel way up the lawn. There are many puddles and wet spots around the local farm land from recent rain, but it’s been dry for over a week, they should have gone away by now. John reckons the local river is flowing backwards in places. I don’t see how it could be because there’d be a lake forming somewhere and there isn’t.

The epicentre is actually a line about 30km long. It is not a single spot on the ground. All along that line the ground has offset, sometimes by as much as 8m. See the photo John took of Telegraph Road. The centre line of the road lines up with the outside line further down. That is a huge earth movement. Apparently no one had any idea there was a fault line there. This was not the alpine fault quake we’ve been expecting, this was something completely unforeseen.

Holes in roads

Holes and humps in the roads are probably, beside the sand, the one real visual thing that shows something happened here. I’m not talking about in the central city, I haven’t been there yet and I’m picking that it will feel pretty horrific when I do, but out here in the suburbs where superficially at least, everything looks normal the sand is a giveaway. Even unstable houses don’t look wrong until you are close enough to see the cracks. But driving down a road and hitting a completely unexpected mound gives you a jolt. That wasn’t there last week. You can see the cracks, they’re quite obvious, but the mounds that have risen up out of nowhere aren’t nearly so easy to see. On the plus side, we’ve completely eliminated the problems the city has been having with boy racers and their souped up cars. Those things won’t be able to get out of the driveways at the moment; they’re all super low slung! There’s a silver lining no one predicted.

Boiling water and disaster preparedness

Boiling drinking water gets really tiresome really quickly. It takes a long time for a large pot full of boiled water to cool enough to drink. Ordinary modern kettles that switch off once the water has reached the boil do not boil water long enough to make it safe.

Something I had done, about the only real disaster preparedness I had done, was to put bottles of water in the freezer. I had heard about this on the radio only a few months ago. You fill any empty freezer space you have with plastic bottles of drinking water. It serves several purposes. It makes your freezer more efficient to run if it is full. If you do lose power it will help keep the perishable contents cold for longer. It provides cold water for packing picnics etc AND you have a supply of fresh water for emergencies. I don’t slavishly follow all advice notices. I do not have a disaster kit, but I did have water in the freezer, candles in the cupboard and enough canned food to last a few days. Torches were a bit lacking. Fortunately we never lost power.

Even if the supermarkets manage to open weird things happen with food supplies. To start with truck loads of stuff came off the shelves and got ruined, not just in the supermarket but in the food distribution centres that own the places. Truck loads, tons and tons and mountains of ruined food. Breweries lose stock and the ability to make more. The flour mills that supply the bakeries are all damaged, long before the bread doesn’t get to the empty shelves.

The earthquake happened in the early hours of Saturday. I didn’t attempt to go shopping until Wednesday. The first thing I noticed when I got there was the silt in the carpark, the second, the photos on the windows showing what the place had looked like in the aftermath. You can imagine. Rivers of red wine, glass, a pile of all the nuts and things out of the bulk bins, broken stuff everywhere.

Inside, the fruit and vege section looked like it always did. I guess that stuff is supplied locally and had been restocked. No cereals left on the shelf, no canned baked beans or spaghetti, dry pasta, noodles, flour, sugar, plenty of eggs – again local produce. Hardly any bottle of drink, juices, fizzy drink (except for bins of coke), no bottled water left, strangely no kitty litter (can’t work that one out). No commercial bread although their own bakery was doing sterling work producing various loaves themselves. No muslei bars, plenty of wine (restocked from where?) and only beer in bulk cartons of 2 dozen cans.

So can you see what you need to be stocked up on to survive for a few days after a disaster? Strangely chocolate biscuits were on sale. Chocolate bar supplies looked to be very low too. Comfort food obviously.

To make matters worse the main road and main trunk railway line about 150 km north of town have been completely wiped out in a landslide this morning (a week after the quake) and supplies coming into town are having to be trucked around the slip by a rather torturous route.

We are not a third world country. The earthquake earlier in the year in Haiti was of a similar magnitude to this. Nothing else about the situation is anything similar. The night following the quake there was no one who didn’t have somewhere to sleep with a roof over their head. No one has gone hungry. Some homes are still without sewage and running water but it is very few. Portaloos have been placed on the worst affected streets. Trucks are bringing in water to people who need it.

People will be facing financial hardship if damaged homes were not insured, some have lost their jobs as businesses have been forced to close, but no one will starve. No one will remain homeless. Some of the resettlement etc will not be to everyone’s liking and people will moan, but everyone will receive the basics (and more than the basics compared to Haitian standards) that they need to survive.

Community Spirit
Amazing. Just amazing. People have pulled together in the most wonderful way. Students have created armies out their clearing the streets. People are providing food, places to stay, whatever people need, someone is doing it. So many of the emergency staff have been dealing with their own trauma and they’re still out there helping, fixing, doing.

I feel like the whole country would come and help with whatever we asked. There is nothing to do at our house right now, we just have to sit and wait, but I know if I asked, someone would come.

It is exhausting, all of this, but knowing all of the good will makes such a difference. I was quite impressed seeing how tired the Prime Minister and the Civil Defence Ministers looked on TV the other morning, like they too had been up all night doing the best they could do. And the Civil Defence guy looked even more exhausted the next day. That probably meant more than best wishes from the Queen.

We’re over them. Truly. It feels like you keep biting on something unexpectedly hard so that your teeth are continuously jarred. Then you forget what it’s like, until the next one.