Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 5, 2010

Real-life Resilience

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on September 5, 2010

We have talked often about resilience on this blog in recent months. Some of you have commented that these discussions have often tended toward the theoretical if not the ephemeral. Many of you have asked for real-life examples of resilience in practice. Fortunately, the people of Christchurch, New Zealand are showing us what it really means.

The M7.1 earthquake struck New Zealand’s second largest city at 4:36 AM on Saturday. Emergency services immediately swung into action. People shaken from their beds quickly assessed their damage and checked on their neighbors. And a few businesses opened their doors to offer emergency supplies — in some cases below cost if not free — to those who had not prepared in advance.

Well-practiced plans ensured a preliminary damage assessment was conducted quickly and the information relayed to emergency operations centers at the local, regional and national levels. National-level resources were put on standby to provide specialized support and relieve Christchurch-based crews. International relief organizations and the U.S. military quickly offered their support, but none was accepted as no evidence of unmet need was evident.

As daylight came and the damage became evident, people got to work helping one another clear debris and cover holes in roofs caused by falling chimneys. People worked together to store potable water and assemble supplies that might be needed in the days ahead.

Grocers who could open their doors did so. Other businesses received support from vendors and telecommunications companies to get their electronic funds transfer systems up and running so they could open and supply customers’ needs.

The former state-owned telecommunications company, Telecom, made 300 public payphones free for local, regional and national calls. Other telecommunications providers worked together with Telecom and local emergency managers to ensure continuous communications was available via cellphone, especially for those using short-message service (SMS or text messaging).

The company responsible for local transmission of electrical power had restored service to 90% of customers by nightfall on the first day. Nearly all rural customers had power restored by the end of the second day.

Four welfare centers opened to receive people whose homes were too badly damaged to stay in and those who were simply too scared to return to their homes as aftershocks continued. By the close of the second day, though, only 220 people had stayed in shelters overnight. Most people sought shelter with family, friends and neighbors.

Roads and bridges suffered significant damage as did in-ground infrastructure, especially piped services such as water and wastewater. Air and rail transportation were disrupted initially, but the international airport reopened by early afternoon and rail service was restored in many areas the next day.

The prime minister, minister of civil defence emergency management and local MPs flew into the city on a military transport to offer central government support for the local and regional responses. Initial media criticism of the time lag between the quake’s occurrence and the formal declaration of a state of emergency has subsided as people have come to realize how effective the initial response has been and how little external assistance was required to deal with the initial effects of the temblor.

Post-earthquake fires have been few and far between. About 500 buildings have been heavily damaged. No deaths occurred, and the local hospital treated about 100 serious injuries with only two requiring critical care.

The biggest ongoing problem may well be the geological damage to the aquifer. Significant flooding has resulted from the displacement of the layers of earth that separate the top level of the aquifer from the surface soils. Large parts of the city and adjacent small towns now resemble marshland.

Estimates of the cost of recovery are still being tabulated. Some initial estimates, which seem conservative, put the losses in the vicinity of NZ$2 billion. The country’s Earthquake and War Damage Commission has assets in excess of NZ$15 billion to cover many of the uninsurable public and private costs.

Gratitude that no one lost their life in this disaster has been tempered by the realization that a great deal of work lies ahead. People with whom I have communicated by text and email since the earthquake struck have made it clear that people there have the spirit to get the job done.

The surest sign of hope was the good humor with which people greeted the challenges they face. Several joked about their new circumstances in Facebook posts and a playlist of earthquake themed music was quickly compiled. Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up topped the list.


New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management

Environment Canterbury >> Earthquake Update

Christchurch City Council >> Earthquake Update

Disruption Follows Quake >> The Press (Christchurch)

Christchurch Earthquake Photos

Twitter Trendsmap

Christchurch Rocks >> 13 Lessons Learned from the Earthquake

Canterbury Earthquake News and Information

Christchurch Earthquake Map Mashup

CrisisCommons >> Christchurch Quake Wiki

Google Earth Blog >> Christchurch Earthquake Visualization

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

September 5, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

Hi Mark:

I have been watching with interest the outcome in ChristChurch also. See my blog today (http://recoverydiva.com) for the posting regarding the mandatory residential structures ins. that New Zealand has. It will be interesting to see how the funding for recovery unfolds — hopefully, they will set a good example for the U.S.

Pingback by New Zealand Earthquake – government-insured residential losses « Recovery Diva

September 5, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

[…] comments re resilience in NZ in the posting today by Mark Chubb on his site: Homeland Security Watch. from → Earthquake, New Zealand, Resilience ← New Zealand Earthquake – update […]

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 5, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

Thanks, Claire, for the kind words and the link back.

As you may know, I was fire chief in Christchurch form 2001-2007. The response seems to have unfolded largely as we had planned.

The EQC will play a large role in funding recovery. This fund is essentially a government chartered reinsurance program. All insured properties pay into the fund. (This may be the mandatory program to which you refer. Homeowners and businesses are under no government mandate to insure their properties against loss, but all are liable for Fire Service levy, which is assessed against the indemnity value of at-risk properties.) Central government has made it clear they will backstop the funding required to restore damaged infrastructure.

I think one of the bigger questions to emerge will have to do with rebuilding in areas vulnerable to liquefaction, especially those that have suffered flooding due to the displacement of the aquifer.

Poor weather over the next few days could also compound losses. The district north of Christchurch is now on flood watch.

I am sure we will have many more opportunities to draw lessons in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Comment by Art Botterell

September 5, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who was against resilience. As with many theological conversations, the trouble doesn’t start until one starts to explore the precise nature of the virtue in question. And things don’t get really ugly until the discussion turns to the question of who gets to decide.

Of course, resilience isn’t directly measurable; it’s a meta parameter that describes the behavior of some other metric, comparable to, say, statistical variability. Systems don’t exhibit variability, or resilience, although their particular parameters may. Thus it’s hard to have a serious conversation about resilience unless we agree as to “resilience of what?”

Looking at Christchurch in terms of its insurance scheme implies a working answer to that question: We’re talking primarily about insurable real estate. Generally speaking the metrics of insurance are financial, and individual property owners are free to reinvest their insurance pay-outs either to restore the status-quo-ante or to tear down and rebuild in some other form or even some other location. (Specifics of the insurance program and local land-use controls may mitigate that freedom somewhat, of course.) The outcome can be unpredictable for the community as a whole (e.g., if everyone decides to relocate out of a neighborhood) but there’s no argument involved.

When we turn to public infrastructure, though, things get trickier. The “rebuild or do something else?” debate can pit various interests against one another and strain the available conflict-resolution mechanisms. An example would be the relocation of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland after part of it collapsed in a quake in 1989. Local community groups mobilized to force the state to reroute the freeway, at great incremental expense.

And when we start to talk about the resilience of things as complex and hard to measure as “community” I’m afraid we’re entirely at sea. Just the other day I noted an article (somewhere, I’ve lost track) arguing that the emphasis on insurance pay-outs in New Orleans had served property owners better than renters. I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that, but the form of the discussion seemed familiar. Whose resilience counts, and who gets to count it?

I, for one, stand foursquare for resilience. And against sin. But I’m not clear how useful either term is in making policy.

Still, the folks of Christchurch are in my thoughts and I hope they all experience the sorts of resilience they need.

Comment by John Comiskey

September 5, 2010 @ 8:30 pm


Christchurch -Emersonian individual and communal self-reliance incarnate.

Mass urbanization and babying our young has contributed to a ridiculous dependence on government: why do for yourself when the government will do near everything for you -the epitome of the nanny state.

So far, not so for Christchurch.

New paradigm/smart practice for resiliency -Christchurch 2010.

Thank you

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 5, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

Art, I agree for the most part that resilience is an intangible quality that come to the surface in how people respond to the choices before them. It is the nature of focusing events like this to make us somewhat oblivious to such choices in the dynamic and complex environment of response. As the population shifts to recovery, I think you’re right, we will see the true test of resilience.

One of the ways we can assess resilience when the choices are not so evident is the speed with which people address their basic needs and those of others, including people who have not taken time to prepare before the event. In this respect, I am very impressed by the available evidence.

The resolute, realistic and good natured way people have engaged their present circumstances and the speed with which they seem to be setting the table for the response-recovery transition gives me hope that they will overcome the challenges that lie ahead. People seem committed not only to working together but also to assuming the best about one another’s intentions, including the motivations and intentions of the local and central governments.

Time will tell … in the meantime we’ll see whether their faith in government is well-placed.

Comment by Art Botterell

September 5, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

I don’t think resilience is inherently intangible, Mark, except when it’s used to describe something intangible. But it has no measurable existence in itself, and so when the term is used in the abstract it’s a fairly empty bit of language.

Complicating things further, there are two distinct senses of the word. As used in engineering, resilience refers to a material’s ability to recover to its previous state after being stressed. But in psychology the term refers to an individual’s ability to regain a dynamic balance (“homeostasis” is the technical term) in a complex and changing world.

Thus the question becomes whether we believe the goal of resilience is the restoration of the status quo as it existed before the stressful event, or instead the achievement of a “new normal” that may be significantly different from the status quo ante. That debate has a long history in disaster recovery circles; adding the word “resilience” hasn’t made it go away although it may temporarily have obscured the problem to some eyes.

Anyway, the Heroic Period of disaster response is always inspiring to see. For a few hours or a few days, at least, people are generous and self-sacrificing and just generally the way we wish we were all the time. It’s the experience that, in my experience at least, “hooks” serial responders. Certainly I saw it during the first disaster I was ever involved with, and it’s a state of being that I’ve chased ever since.

But inevitably, regrettably, the Heroic Period is of finite duration. After it comes the Disillusionment Period, sometimes known as the “where’s my check?” phase. Unfortunately, a lot of important recovery choices get made during that less pleasant part of the disaster lifecycle; it’s frequently not so pretty at all.

Eventually there’s a Reintegration Period, during which people start to gain traction in the post-disaster environment and begin to construct a new normal for themselves. Whether they want the new normal to recreate the old normal depends largely on how well that old normal was working for them. Whether they’re able to achieve the new normal they want depends on politics, economics, psychology and luck.

Without tying the term resilience to any specific metric, I suspect that the term is largely used as a general “goodness” value describing satisfaction with that new normal. But since different individuals and groups can have very different judgements of any particular outcome, that very flexible use of the term can, I fear, reduce it to little more than a rhetorical trope.


September 5, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

“Whenever companies start hiring freely again, job-seekers with specialized skills and education will have plenty of good opportunities. Others will face a choice: Take a job with low pay — or none at all.” AP

Head for NZ. Plenty of work for years. Stay in USA and wither, unless you can get on corporate welfare fraud gravy train. The companies aren’t free now. Need to stop more people from breathing if you have specskills, that’s where the money is. Killing business and business is great. Honey we killed GM today, so you can get a job as a zombie. Pay sucks, actually it’s none at all and all for none.


September 5, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

Before 9-11 it was all how do we help keep people breathing. After it it became how do we stop them. They won’t need a check after they check out. Don’t get disillusioned. As usual government is better at getting people killed than killing people cost effectively. All the security failed all at once, so the old normal is unacceptable.

The new normal is better if it’s profitable, so what does government do? Cuts huge checks for every failed corporation in the world. Reward failed security to gain more security. Hold your breath and turn blue, you’ll get a check too. Crime now pays with them running it. See how long it runs before something smashes into something else.

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 6, 2010 @ 12:29 am

Art, I am familiar with each phase of the disaster lifecycle to which you refer. Sadly, I have experienced all three in various roles, including disaster survivor, responder and researcher.

My post was an attempt to move from the fairly abstract treatments of resilience that have provoked skepticism among readers who asked for something a bit more focused and concrete to describe what we mean. The situation in Christchurch is quite familiar for me and as such I am watching it quite closely for the signs you describe, but in the meantime I think these initial observations can help focus my thinking and initiate a productive discussions of this topic among our readers.

It’s clearly too early to tell how people are doing adjusting to their new normal. But the loss and damage has been less than many if not most expected, so people are somewhat more hopeful than we had anticipated they would be when I lived and worked there. (Does a more resilient than expected infrastructure make it easier for people to display the sort of resilience psychologists look at? Probably.)

If the heroic phase passes quickly, as it seems it has or soon will, how, if at all, will that affect the duration and intensity of the disillusionment phase? People there are clearly getting tired. The adrenaline is wearing off, and people now realize they have a lot of work to do. But they have many resources available to them and feel like they have rediscovered a sense of community they can rely on as things become more difficult.

Commentators and friends have remarked on how well the response went yet they still have few expectations of making a quick recovery. They have shared very realistic assessments of their situation with me and my wife, and seem to have very pragmatic and indeed practical steps laid out for themselves in the days ahead.

This all sounds very familiar to me from my experience of disaster as a youngster in Xenia, Ohio in 1974 when my town was hit by an F-5 tornado that wiped out about half the buildings in town. We had no FEMA. The National Guard came to town to secure the city and help clear debris from roads. We received help from many places far and wide, but ultimately had to depend on ourselves and one another to do the hardest work. People pulled together and the city bounced back. Things clearly changed and not always for the better, but we were alive and we were grateful and we were in it together.

It is my fervent hope that this discussion makes it clear that I very much want to avoid seeing resilience slip into trite usage. Understanding resilience in an ecological sense, which strikes a balance between the two definitions you referenced from engineering and psychology, strikes me as good way of achieving this. This usage allows us to discuss metrics without losing a sense of the essential qualities that distinguish adaptation and evolution in ways we have not witnessed before and therefore are unprepared to measure.

As I watch my friends and colleagues in Christchurch over the days, weeks and months ahead, I intend to remain particularly alert for unexpected and surprising changes that reflect learning and growth. They have already proven they can take a punch. Now let’s see how this shapes their strategies for the fights that lie ahead.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 6, 2010 @ 5:10 am

Mark! It looks like the expected “Big One” has now been experienced by NZ! Am I wrong? What is the experience of NZ with major earthquanes in last 200 years? Any native history of large-scale events?

Pingback by New Zealand Earthquake – resilience of ChristChurch « Recovery Diva

September 6, 2010 @ 5:58 am

[…] I recommend the interesting discussion , and useful comments, regarding resilience that is on the Homeland Security Watch blog for Sept. 5.  Mark Chubb the author of the posting has extensive experience working in […]

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 6, 2010 @ 9:11 am


We know alot about and can usually agree on — even measure — physical resilience.

We know a fair amount about and have begun to measure aspects of psychological resilience.

We are much less confident when we try to characterize social or community resilience, though I personally perceive there are already the foundations of effective measurment here as well. I perceive part of the problem with “social resilience” is what produces it competes with other social outcomes and we are not (yet?) willing to accept the trade-offs.

Where consensus regarding resilience may be least developed is the “investment strategy” needed to foster it… which I perceive reflects the trade-off issue referenced immediately above.

Is there anything in the New Zealand experience that confirms, eviscerates, or at least illuminates these categorical distinctions?

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 6, 2010 @ 11:51 am

Phil, very good points and questions. Some colleagues of mine at Portland State University have been working with the Community Capitals Framework that comes out of the rural development literature as a way of evaluating and perhaps making a start at measuring social resilience.

This framework illustrates the relationships among natural, physical/material, human, social, cultural/spiritual, political and economic sources of capital. Human and natural capital are the raw materials from which the other sources of capital emerge and develop distinct expressions. As such, it is the way in which individual human beings interpret their relationship with the natural world that mediates the ways they relate to one another and defines the sorts of culture, society, economy and politics that emerge.

Because relationships have such a powerful influence over the expression of value, the key metrics revolve around the quantity and quality of the interactions among individuals and groups.

One of the things I am keen to observe is the extent to which existing social networks engage the choices ahead and how they mediate conflicts among their members and with other groups. At the same time, I will be looking carefully for the emergence of new social groupings and the norms that define them and mediate their interactions with others.

I imagine that a successful recovery will require both effective leveraging of existing social networks and the creation of new social structures to deal with problems that emerged from this event. The extent to which these new grouping leverage other forms of community capital will have a significant influence on the trajectory and pace of recovery.

Comment by Art Botterell

September 6, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

Ah, yes, Xenia. I was just down the road in Cincinnati in 1974, working in a crisis intervention center. And then an F-4 came through there again in 2000. So I very much respect your emotional investment here, Mark.

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 6, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

Bill, sadly this event was not the anticipated “big One.” Saturday’s quake reveal a previously undetected fault in the middle of the Canterbury Plains. With any luck, it has relieved some of the pressure building on the Alpine Fault, but seismologists have yet to decide whether it helps or hurts.

This event produced effects in Christchurch quite consistent with those anticipated from an Alpine Fault event. The damage in Christchurch is consistent with the Modified Mercalli Index VII and VIII effects upon which our planning was based.

If anything, the looming threat of continued aftershocks and the ongoing risk of an Alpine Fault event are focusing people on the hard work ahead and the urgency of building back better than before. People have realized that investments in seismic strengthening of key landmarks like the Anglican Cathedral, the Catholic Basilica, Christ College and Christchurch Boys’ High School among others paid off. The relatively minimal damage and disruption experienced by new buildings seems to have affirmed the importance of effective building codes. Maintaining adequate capacity to inspect new construction and structural repairs will be one of many challenges faced during the recovery period.

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 6, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

Here’s a great example of leveraging existing forms of social capital to create new special-purpose networks after a disaster: The Press >> Student army takes to the streets. This is exactly the sort of self-organizing activity I was suggesting would provide us with evidence of social resilience.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Poverty, Population and Motion

September 8, 2010 @ 12:02 am

[…] to support his observations about the factors that led to the favorable outcomes I outlined on Sunday. New Zealanders have invested not only their natural, economic and material capital but also […]

Pingback by Poverty, Population and Motion « R4 Resilience

September 8, 2010 @ 8:58 am

[…] to support his observations about the factors that led to the favorable outcomes I outlined on Sunday. New Zealanders have invested not only their natural, economic and material capital but also […]

Comment by John Lamb

September 21, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

Thanks Mark. Good to know you still monitor the situation in Christchurch. After being very much involved in the preparation for an earthquake which would cause liquefaction, particularly with mitigation work with the utilties, I was in Australia when it occurred! From my viewpoint with no formal involvement, it seems that the damage that occurred was very similar to that which we predicted and it seems that the prior strengthening work done by the utilties had a large part to play in the immediate response and enabled services restoration so very quickly. As expected,the worst damge to the utilities has been in the liquefaction area. Restoration of services will there will take many months. Fortunately potable water supply has been restored but wastewater pipes manholes etc will take many months to restore. As we know, earthquakes do not impact the same in every area and do not always cause damage similar to what is predicted. Very strangely, the expected worst area, (the Ferrymead Bridge and the roading near it), survived as there was very little liquefaction there. I understand that if the severe shaking had gone on for 10 seconds more the situation would have been very much worse. John Lamb. Now retired, but previous Regional Controller for Civil Defence and Engineering Lifelines Group Manager.

Comment by Birkenstock Sandals

June 11, 2015 @ 4:18 am

Entah bila dia dapat merawatnya,” perli Lidya.“Aku tak pergi mana pun, Fetty,”Aku hanya mampu mendiamkan diri sahaja.” aku bermonolog di hati.” panggilnya perlahan. Cakap kat maklong aku buat dan pastikan semuanya siap. Tanpa memberitahu Utusan Rahmat, walau beribu orang sekalipun.

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