By Audrey Fraizer
EMD Andy Gray braced between his CAD and chair, feeling like the Earth was slipping from under his feet.
And it was.
The devastating earthquake that cut across Christchurch, New Zealand, shortly after noon on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, was nothing that even Gray—a native of New Zealand’s southern island—could have anticipated.
“We rocked and rolled like anything on Earth,” said Gray, a dispatcher in the Christchurch-based Emergency Ambulance Communications Centre (EACC) operated by St. John Ambulance. “It shook the whole center. We felt totally helpless and hunkered down to survive for the moment.”
The quake, measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale and one in a series following an initial earthquake on Sept. 4, 2010, knocked coworkers to the floor and sent chairs crashing against walls. The Earth shook and the public service building swayed; CADs and bookcases tumbled, and ceiling tiles fell. Phones went berserk, but not so much because of the number of emergency calls placed immediately afterward; both the number of open lines from phones knocked off receivers and alarms accidentally activated overloaded the system.
“Within a very short time, the number of calls was triple that of what we usually have,” said Laura McConchie, communications center training coordinator and quality assurance officer.
The moment passes
A momentary lull came after the initial shock, then the calls flooded in. Staff kept working. Dispatchers broadcast a message over the radio system, alerting emergency medical responders on the streets to the possibility of losing contact.
The second shock shut down the system. An automatic cutover transferred the calls to the other two New Zealand EACCs—in Auckland and Wellington on the northern island. The three centers are fully integrated, providing a virtual national EMS dispatch center capable of handling multiple calls and incidents at the same time for any part of the country (on either island).
“Calls weren’t interrupted,” McConchie said.
Between the second and third aftershock, dispatchers left the building, coming back to dispatch from a portable radio. The third shock and they had to leave the building for good.
“It wasn’t safe,” Gray said. “There was so much we could have done and wanted to do but it was no longer safe. The system had died.”
Outside, panic ruled the streets. People trying to leave downtown were climbing up and around piles of bricks and rubble. Ambulance crews were on scene doing what they could to help the injured. People were screaming.
“Lunch time on a Friday afternoon and it’s not a storm you see coming in the distance,” Gray said. “You can’t prepare for something like this. There’s no way you can get out of the way of an earthquake.”
The Feb. 22 earthquake was an aftershock of a massive, deeper quake that hit 19 miles west of the city, on the east coast of the island, before dawn on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010. The September quake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale but, despite causing extensive damage, no deaths were reported.
Dispatchers in Christchurch—both at the medical and police communications centers—were able to stay at their desks, answering calls and dispatching response. The number of calls was above average, and most related to calls for assistance, information, and confirmation; some called to report an earthquake.
“The first earthquake [in September] was like a train passing,” Gray said. “The second [in February] was like a train hitting the building, smack right into us. You feel totally helpless when something like this happens. All you can do is hunker down to survive for the moment.”
Massive aftershock in February
February’s quake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, caused far more damage and death for several reasons.
The earthquake took place at 12:51 p.m., the height of a workday near a city of 400,000 where some 26,000 full-time employees were working downtown. Streets and shops were crowded and offices were occupied. Children were in school. The epicenter (the place above the earthquake’s first movement) was relatively shallow at just three miles deep—and about six miles outside the city.1
The quake shut down the EMS communications center.
The South Island’s police communications center housed in a seven-story building, also in Christchurch, switched operations to a generator when the main power shut down. Those inside were taking shelter wherever they could.
“There was staff under desks, there was staff over desks,” said communications centre manager Inspector Kieren Kortegast.2 “Some were trying to hold onto screens. We’ve got a big fish tank in there and there was water going everywhere.”
By day’s end, 60% of the city was inaccessible by public transportation, and water gushing from burst mains and liquefaction (soil reduced to a fluid-like mass from the violent shaking) flooded the streets. Roads were mud. Collapsed buildings left hundreds trapped in bricks, cement, and twisted steel.
The highest number of casualties of the 182 confirmed dead occurred in the collapse of two office buildings—Pyne Gould Guinness Corporation and Canterbury TV (CTV). Dozens were found alive by search and rescue teams scouring the rubble for days after the quake, including a woman crouched under an office desk for 25 hours.3
“This [the February 2011 quake] was definitely the worst event in New Zealand’s recent history,” Gray said. “Recovery will take a long time.”
Sobering photos of the aftermath show portions of homes fallen over cliff-side overlooks, cars and buses crushed by fallen concrete, and military vehicles patrolling downtown streets and neighborhoods. Deep crevices zigzagged in the shape of lightning bolts down the middle of roads. The shaking caused huge icebergs to break and cave into Tasman Glacier’s Terminal Lake where tourist boats rolled over 3.5 meter (11.48 feet) waves.
Emergency responders from the South Island and those flying in from the North Island raced against time and continued aftershocks, and—during the next several days—sifted through the ruins, poked heat-seeking cameras into gaps between piles of bricks, and sent sniffer dogs over concrete slabs. Search and rescue crews arrived from all over the world. A 70-member Japanese rescue team arrived at the quake site on Feb. 24. Other search and rescue crews came in from Britain, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and the United States.4
Australian and New Zealand police officers joined members of the New Zealand Army to carry out reassurance patrols and go door-to-door, meeting residents and advising them of key points of service contacts. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key launched the global Christchurch Earthquake Appeal on Feb. 27, and by August nearly $98 million had been raised to restore the area.5
McConchie said it was the small things that helped.
“People came by to give clean water and blankets,” she said. “The concern really picked up the spirits.”
Center damages and reports coming in over the radio introduced McConchie to the destruction she passed on her way home from work, six hours after the earthquake hit. A normally 20-minute drive turned into three hours. Roads were closed and, if still open, snarled by traffic. Historic buildings in the central business district, McConchie calls the “heart of the city,” lay in shambles; 900 are now marked for demolition.
“I knew it would be bad but not this bad,” McConchie said. “I wondered how anyone could actually get through this. It was horrific.”
Hope of returning to the comfort of home was destroyed when McConchie kicked in her front door (photo on page 34). Overturned and broken furniture, clothing, and books floated in water seeping through tremor-cracked floors. Liquefaction measured up to a meter (3.28 feet) high in places.
Rather than check for anything salvageable, she loaded her frightened dog and cats into the car and drove around the corner to her parents’ house. They lived for weeks without sewer, water, or power and took showers at the Portacom buildings (modular, portable) set up at the beach close to the neighborhood.
“My parents have lived in the neighborhood for 35 years and they’re the only light on in their street,” she said. “The others have left.”
McConchie seldom stops by her former home, which is among 12,000 scheduled for demolition. During her last visit in July, grass was growing from mud in her living room. The few belongings she was able to save are in storage. She is staying at her parents’ house until deciding “what’s next.”
“At the moment, I’m waiting to tie up things,” she said. “It’s very hard. I grew up here, went to school here, and bought a home here. And now it all looks very strange.”
Back to work
The EACC’s 40-member staff was back in their building within a month. Nearly a third of them reported serious damages to their homes or, like McConchie, own homes no longer inhabitable. Gray’s house suffered fairly minor damages.
But, returning to the once bustling public service building two months after the quake has offered little consolation except, maybe, the opportunity to help others.
“YOU CAN’T COVER YOUR EARS AND PRETEND YOU DON’T HEAR ANYTHING.”
“Most of the building can’t be occupied,” said McConchie, an army medic before entering dispatch six years ago. “We used to go to the other side of the building to see people. Not anymore. Dispatch and information technology are the only ones here.”
Liquefaction has caused the building to sag. CADs are strapped to the consoles and bookcases are drilled into the walls. Continued aftershocks bring on stress and further erode confidence, increasing the number of callers complaining of breathing problems. Dispatch sends an ambulance to make sure the caller doesn’t have a serious health concern.
“People are scared,” Gray said. “Now even the slightest noise or movement causes alarm. You can’t cover your ears and pretend you don’t hear anything.”
Similar to other services, the communications center is on the mend, projecting ways to be better prepared for the next time around. The plan in December was moving communications for at least five years to a temporary base of operations.
The 7,500 aftershocks since the initial temblor in September 2010 has become the costliest disaster in New Zealand’s history and to make matters worse, scientists say another one of magnitude 6 or greater is not unlikely in the coming months.
Residents have since left the city in droves, weary of another disaster or, because of tremendous personal and financial losses, forced to start a new life elsewhere. A report by the International Monetary Fund put the cost at $12.6 billion.6 In the year following the initial quake of September 2010, 43% of the population had moved from one suburb to another, and 17% had moved off the island. Government statisticians estimate that Christchurch will have lost 2.5% of its pre-quake population of 320,000 by next April.7
Rebuilding is slow because of the continued aftershocks. Scientists mapping the city’s seismic risks have staked out more than 1,000 acres of “red zones,” designating areas too dangerous to live in and rebuild. Residents of red zones had 21 months to move before the city started cutting off water and electric service. The national government has offered to buy their houses and lands.8
McConchie said the disaster’s magnitude and potential for future, perhaps more powerful shocks, changes perspective.
“At the end of the day, it’s not that you’re a stronger person,” McConchie said. “It’s that you’re still alive.”
Just the facts
New Zealand lies at the southern end of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and above an area where the Pacific Plate converges with the Indo-Australian Plate. The country experiences more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, of which only about 20 have a magnitude in excess of 5.0.
Three dispatch centers provide EMS response in New Zealand. The one in Christchurch provides coverage to the South Island and is operated by St. John Ambulance. Auckland provides coverage for the northern half of the North Island and is also operated by St. John Ambulance. Wellington provides coverage for the southern half of the North Island and is jointly operated by Wellington Free Ambulance and St. John Ambulance. All dispatchers in New Zealand are certified EMDs. They process approximately 300,000 calls per year originating from the 1-1-1 system. They also process an additional 800,000 calls per year from general practitioners, hospitals requesting transfers, and medical alarms.
1. New Zealand quake: Workers embark on delicate Rescue, Nick Bryant, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12555559, published Feb. 23, 2011, and retrieved Aug. 11, 2011.
2. Police comms team kept calm and carried on. The Press, http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/4870203/Police-comms-team-kept-cal…, published February 2011, retrieved Aug. 15, 2011.
3. New Zealand earthquake magnitude 6.3 hits Christchurch, Christian Science Monitor, Global News Blog, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2011/0221/New-Zealand-earthqu…, published Feb. 21, 2011, and retrieved Aug. 10, 2011.
4. See note 1.
5. New Zealand earthquake ‘damaged 100,000 homes’, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11191105, published Sept. 6, 2010, and retrieved Aug. 12, 2011.
6. See note 5.
7. New Zealand’s Christchurch still on knees from quakes, The New York Times, Jonathan Hutchison, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2015701399_newzealand2…, published July 23, 2011, retrieved Aug. 12, 2011.
8. See note