DOC’s Deputy Director-General of Operations visits Christchurch

Department of Conservation —  28/02/2011

Having spent a day and a half in Christchurch last week, I thought I’d share some personal observations of what DOC staff in Christchurch have been going through. It’s not a pretty read – however I hope it will help you get a sense of just what they are facing.

Sue Tucker, Deputy Director General

Flying into Christchurch airport it’s clear you are heading for a crisis zone – staff at the airport are handing out bottled water, looks are serious and all flights in are delayed as the airport copes with a huge exodus. As I walked through the airport I was struck immediately by the number of people queuing up to leave the city. Every chair and wall was filled with anxious, tired people doing all they could to leave the devastation behind.  

Surprisingly our trip from the airport to the Sockburn office was uneventful, as it took us through neighbourhoods pretty much unaffected by the earthquake. Most of the suburbs west of the Cathedral have been little affected, while the CBD itself and suburbs to the east have been badly hit – as you’ll see from the following observations.

Early Thursday evening we drove through the CBD cordon (access thanks to our team playing a key part in the civil defence response) along streets and pavements that were buckled and torn and covered in liquefaction, a weird silt-like deposit that literally comes out of the ground in an earthquake. Building after building had been badly damaged by the force of the quake – some had literally crashed to the ground, others were torn apart, still more were bent and broken. Beautiful churches were reduced to ruins, historic buildings turned to rubble and some of Christchurch’s most popular business and shops have been destroyed – burying people in the process. It was a truly heartbreaking sight. No words can properly describe it.

What also stood out was the random pattern of the impact – some buildings looked completely untouched, while their immediate neighbours were destroyed. There seemed no rhyme or reason – sometimes the new had collapsed while the old stayed up; at other times the reverse was true.  

The effect on DOC offices was varied. The main conservancy office looks in ok shape, but the buildings on either side are heavily damaged and will need to be levelled – with potential risk for the DOC building. The Kilmore St site has more damage evident with cracks in walls and some panels protruding. The general level of destruction in the CBD would suggest it could be six –nine months before a return is possible. 

Canterbury Conservator Mike Cuddihy,
Director-General Al Morrison and
West Coast Conservator Mike Slater

So just what did DOC staff go through in those buildings at the time of the earthquake?  It must have been absolutely terrifying being anywhere near the CBD during the quake, let alone being in multi-storied office buildings like ours.

I talked to a few of our Christchurch team about what they experienced.  The force of the earthquake was so strong it threw many off their feet and some clear across the room into office furniture and walls. Sirens began to wail and dust (mistakenly first identified as smoke) was seen in the Conservancy Office, leading to the evacuation of all staff. Getting to the assembly area in Latimer Square meant manoeuvring past devastated buildings, clouds of dust and piles of rubble – a pretty traumatic experience for many people.

Those who exited the Kilmore St building were similarly thrown about, and spoke of cracks appearing in the overhead concrete beams as they ran down stairs, terrified that they might fall upon them as they exited.

Despite the ordeal for our people, those I talked to were enormously grateful that everyone had come through unscathed.   The experience will not be forgotten in a hurry though – some told me that they were not keen to go back to their building or work in any other high rise in the CBD ever again. A sobering thought.

The following day we spent some time in the eastern suburbs, looking at the damaged residential streets and homes.

The first thing that hits you in this side of the city is the huge amount of damage to roads and basic infrastructure. Great piles of silt from liquifaction are all along the now cracked and bumpy roads.  Sewage and waste water pipes underneath the road have moved and lifted, in many cases breaking through the road surface and creating significant damage. All across the eastern part of the city, the sewage systems have been seriously impacted. Contaminated water can be seen seeping onto the roads and is also flowing directly into rivers and streams – badly affecting all waterways.

At the time of my visit, very few homes in the eastern suburbs had water or electricity.  While power is being restored across all but the most badly hit areas, many areas still do not have water and sewage.  The damage to roads and sewage pipes stretched for mile after mile – it will literally take years to make permanent repairs. In the meantime, residents of the eastern suburbs are faced with creating their own long drop or using newly relocated portaloos (popping up in each suburb) and boiling or collecting fresh water from tankers at local schools. Acceptable for a few days, but imagine facing weeks or months of this?

The second obvious impact is to houses, particularly in the Redcliff and Sumner areas. Here the damage is often masked. Places that look relatively untouched from a distance can be badly damaged when viewed up close. The most visible damage is to roofs.  If you are thinking about using clay tiles as a roof cover I’d think again!  We saw house after house with hardly a clay tile left in place. We also saw sides of houses collapsed, walls caved in and holes where rooms used to be. 

House showing earthquake damage

Think of just how hard it must have been for DOC staff surviving the earthquake, escaping the CBD and all its horror – only to find their own home has been destroyed. For at least two DOC staff members that was a reality. Others took 4-5hrs or more to make it home to loved ones, to face major damage and a big clean up to deal with. 

I visited one staff member and his family in the process of packing up the small number of possessions that could be readily removed from their home. The back of their house had caved in and the damage was spread throughout the house – making it clearly uninhabitable. They were doing their best to put on a brave face and work through it all, however they now face an uncertain future with no home to go to.  My heart went out to them. Suffering such a terrifying earthquake and then finding yourself homeless must be extraordinarily tough.

And through all of this, the after shocks continued. While some people appear to have become accustomed to them, for others they are very disconcerting. Many are strong enough to shake you awake (as I discovered), adding sleep deprivation on top of it all. 

All in all our Christchurch team have been through a truly frightening ordeal. They have suffered first hand the experience of a devastating earthquake while at work.
Some have also returned home to badly damaged houses with no power, water or sewage – and the needed repairs to roads, sewage pipes and houses will clearly take some time. 

I’m not sure how you go about recovering from such an ordeal. Particularly when the effects will continue to be felt for weeks, months, even years. 

That said, on the whole the people I met with were holding up remarkably well. They have been getting on with sorting out their personal circumstances, supporting family, friends and colleagues and of course many are also contributing to the civil defence effort.  I have the utmost admiration for all they are doing.

What is very clear to me is how important it is that as an organisation and as individuals we do everything we can to help our Christchurch colleagues get through this – now and into the future.