Thursday, October 13, 2011

Letter from Christchurch

Greetings from Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand! As most of you know, I am on sabbatical this academic year and living here with my wife and our two young sons. I will be back at BC next summer.

A few nights ago we had our first good shake after six weeks in Christchurch—a magnitude 5.5 earthquake just offshore of Sumner, the coastal town we had visited earlier in the day. We felt a 4.9 during our first few days here and many other small ones since then, but this one went long enough and was loud enough to give my wife and I a bit of a scare. It was the eighth largest earthquake since it all began on 4 September 2010, and the largest since June.

We are living in a city still recovering from a major trauma. For Christchurch, the big event was the magnitude 6.3 earthquake on 22 February 2012, which was followed by many more aftershocks later that day and on, including several large ones in June. The epicenter of the February quake was about 10 km southeast of the city and quite shallow, and it devastated the Central Business District. It also caused liquefaction (saturated sandy soil sometimes loses strength when subjected to shaking) in large areas on the east side of the city and massive landslides in the Port Hills suburbs (including Sumner) to the south. Many of those areas are now in the “red zone,” which is off limits, in some cases even to homeowners. The September 2010 quake was larger (magnitude 7.1), but on a different fault far enough (40 km) west of the city that the damage was less significant in Christchurch.

We live on the less-damaged west side of the city, in a little house owned by the University of Canterbury (UC) that is situated right next to campus. Several of the university buildings suffered structural damage to the point where they must be demolished, but none were knocked down directly, unlike many of the buildings in the CBD. Throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, the signs of the earthquake are there, mostly in the form of fallen-down brick walls and some blue tarps covering parts of damaged houses, but the roads are all intact and the vast majority of the buildings had only very minor damage, which has already been repaired.

Although local nerves are frayed by the aftershocks and by the uncertainty regarding the future of homes and neighborhoods, in my view as an outsider the impression is one of a city that is functioning and has a functional recovery process. New Zealand has a strong government that provides excellent social services, and the citizens largely lack the anti-government culture that pervades the United States. Importantly, the country has only two layers of government—national and city. About one month after the February quake, the two governing bodies created a new entity, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), which was tasked with managing the recovery effort. CERA is now working feverishly on a plan for how or whether to redevelop the red zone areas, and how to compensate property owners. The pace of the process is of course causing frustration, particularly to red zone homeowners, but from my perspective it is amazingly rapid. Already, CERA and the Christchurch City Council have sent mailings soliciting opinions on a draft recovery plan for the city. The plan was on display at an events tent set up next to the Rugby World Cup Fanzone in the city’s main downtown park. This week, the CCC is holding hearings on the CBD recovery plan.

This all stands in remarkable contrast to the best recent analogy in the United States, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. My wife and I watched first season of David Simon’s HBO series Treme during the first month we were living in Christchurch. We hadn’t planned it this way, but it was remarkable watching a television show about New Orleans six months into the post-Katrina recovery while living in Christchurch six months into its recovery. The narrative of Katrina is the failure of government, and that is one of the central themes of Treme. I don’t think any impartial observer would say that about the Christchurch case. There are certainly parallels. Treme has lots of conspiracy theories in it that were well covered in the national news after Katrina. Christchurch residents have aired out a few of these, too. Both cities also had some level of looting immediately after the events. However, in both of these instances, the similarities are in type, not degree.

My most direct view of the recovery process is at the university. I sat in on a presentation to the Geological Sciences Department by the Vice Chancellor of the College of Science one day in September. UC is facing difficult challenges. To house classes and offices displaced by the unusable buildings they quickly put up a new village of prefabricated buildings on a rugby field. More importantly, they face the near certainty of declining enrollment in 2012 (the February quake happened during the first week of classes for the 2011 academic year), which means a very difficult financial situation in the years to come. Like all U.S. universities, BC faced challenges after the 2008 financial crisis. However, the degree of belt tightening at UC will be far greater than was necessary at BC. The Vice Chancellor mentioned that they are looking at similar recovery situations, such as Cal State Northridge after the 1994 earthquake, and expecting 3-7 years before enrollments return to pre-earthquake levels.

The irony of natural disasters for earth scientists is that these events represent excellent learning opportunities. I have been guest lecturing in various undergraduate and graduate courses in the department (having a relief pitcher is most welcome at this time), as part of my UC Erskine Fellowship. The engagement of the students in the material is quite remarkable. Having lived through a geological event, they have little trouble seeing the importance of understanding how floods and landslides work. The spring semester here in the Southern Hemisphere ends this week. For the rest of our time in NZ, I will remain working out of the department and will be involved in some earthquake-centered research. I will also continue watch and learn about the process of a city recovering from a major environmental disaster.

I hope you are all having a good semester at BC. Until next time,

Director, Environmental Studies Program
Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Boston College

On sabbatical September 2011 - June 2012
Dept. of Geological Sciences
University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand

Shipping containers protecting a Sumner street from continued rockfalls.

View from Sumner Head of the Avon River estuary, Christchurch city and the Southern Alps in the distance.

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