Post-Earthquake New Zealand, From “New Normal” to Sustainable Future

McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies | June 24, 2013

Rashelle Brown

Esther Newman (left) with Anne Marie McLaughlin and Adenrele Awotona.


In the wee hours of September 4, 2010, disaster struck Christchurch, New Zealand. Esther Newman’s husband woke her, saying “this is the big one.” The large-scale earthquake that scientists had long predicted in the region was in progress—an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale. Though Newman had only just resigned as an emergency management advisor to the Christchurch City Council, she knew she had to help out.

But the crisis in Christchurch was only just beginning. Only six months later, the city experienced a second earthquake. Although the second quake had a lower magnitude, its epicenter was closer to the city’s heart. The earthquake caused 185 deaths and left 18,000 families homeless. The central business district, already weakened by the September quake and its aftershocks, suffered significant damage. The total cost to rebuild the region has been estimated at NZ$20–30 billion.

On June 20, the Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters (CRSCAD) and the Office of Emergency Management and Business Continuity at UMass Boston hosted “When a City Falls: Earthquake Response, Recovery, and Restoration in Christchurch and the Canterbury Region of New Zealand.” Newman, an emergency management advisor based in Christchurch, shared her personal experiences and insights on the response, recovery, and restoration of her hometown.

The diverse audience for this talk included representatives from the City of Boston Office of Emergency Management, the Boston Public Health Commission, the Northeast States Emergency Consortium, local colleges’ facilities departments, and UMass Boston faculty, staff, and students.

In her UMass Boston presentation, Newman shared graphs of the more than 10,000 aftershocks that have occurred since the 2010 disaster, videos of the second quake, and dozens of photographs of the affected region. Newman also shared more personal stories of recovery and resilience.

Shortly after the quake, Christchurch residents were left without water, power, or sanitation services, a situation that went on long enough to feel like the “new normal.” After three days, telephone service was restored to much of the city. Within two weeks, approximately 22,000 chemical toilets were distributed to supplement the portable toilets on neighborhood street corners. Restoration of electric power came only a few days later. Within three weeks, building control/welfare support teams had visited all homes in the affected areas to assess the damage. Finally, after one month, residents once again had potable water in their homes and businesses.

While some business owners retreated from Christchurch, many looked for creative solutions to continue operating. Some built “pop-up” coffee stands or set up shop in modular container structures. One local university initially erected tents and other temporary structures to conduct classes and continue business.

“On the bright side,” Newman explained, “the earthquakes allowed us to plan for a more sustainable city.” Government leaders asked for community input that resulted in rezoning to create more green space, more robust building standards, and plans for solar energy housing.

According to UMass Boston’s Emergency Manager Anne Marie McLaughlin, “We were very grateful that Esther Newman was willing to share her experiences in New Zealand with us in Boston. She helped us better understand not only earthquakes, but also the challenges of the long recovery process following any major disaster.”

Newman’s talk follows other global conferences and seminars held at UMass Boston on recent disasters in China, Haiti, Iraq, Japan, and Turkey. The McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters is the only institution of its kind dedicated to raising awareness and offering expertise in emergency response and protection, risk communication, continuity of operations planning, urban planning, architectural design, environmental justice, and community resilience−with an emphasis on addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. The center also offers several certificate programs on related topics through the College for Advancing and Professional Studies.

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