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.