Earthquake Recovery in Canterbury

Building damage in Christchurch City following the 4 September earthquake.At 4.35 am on 4 September 2010, the Canterbury region of New Zealand was shaken by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake which struck 40 kilometres west of Christchurch city, New Zealand’s second largest city. This earthquake marked the beginning of a long and destructive series of earthquakes in the wider Canterbury region.

The earthquake caused damage to land and buildings but no loss of life and few serious injuries. Some building facades toppled and in the city’s eastern suburbs the process of liquefaction caused water and silt to well into streets, gardens and homes. A state of emergency was declared in Christchurch city and the wider Canterbury region. Communities soon resumed normal routines, re-opening schools and workplaces, and lodging insurance claims for homes and commercial premises. However, regular strong aftershocks made their recovery process difficult, with five significant aftershocks between 8 September 2010 and 20 January 2011.

On 22 February 2011, the most damaging earthquake in the sequence occurred. A shallow, magnitude 6.3 earthquake occurred at 12.51 pm, almost directly under the busy central business district (CBD) of Christchurch. The earthquake’s peak ground acceleration was one of the largest recorded worldwide, and the highest ever in a vertical direction. In all 185 people lost their lives and more than 7,000 were injured. Land, housing and infrastructure damage was widespread. Liquefaction destroyed homes and businesses throughout the city, cliffs collapsed, and falling rocks caused landslides in Christchurch’s hillside suburbs.  

Within 24 hours the New Zealand Government declared a national state of emergency and a central city cordon was established and in place for 858 days, to allow extensive demolitions to take place safely. 

The Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management working with local authorities.Following the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes, the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management led the emergency response, supported by local authorities, New Zealand Police, Fire Service, Defence Force and many other agencies and organisations.

The Canterbury earthquake sequence is ongoing and has had a psychological impact on the people of Canterbury. By March 2016, greater Christchurch had experienced almost 18,000 aftershocks. More than 35 of these were magnitude 5 or greater.

Psychosocial support was provided in a number of ways, such as through helplines, public talks, additional health and advice services, and a wide range of published and digital material. A number of programmes were set up to reengage people with communities and interests that they had put aside to respond to their damaged homes and businesses.

In March 2011, the Government set up the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to lead and co-ordinate the Government’s response and recovery effort. CERA worked closely with local councils and iwi across the economic, social, cultural, built and natural recovery environments, and developed the Recovery Strategy for Greater Christchurch. 

The Recovery Strategy set out to guide not just the Government, but also individuals, groups, clubs, communities, politicians, councils, iwi, charities, businesses, the public and private sector, and government agencies that had a role in recovery.

Aerial photo of demolition in the Christchurch CBD.The extent of the damage and the ongoing shaking presented unique challenges for allocating resources to the Canterbury recovery. Hundreds of commercial buildings and civic assets were destroyed and around 168,000 houses were damaged. The cost of this damage is estimated at more than NZ $40 billion dollars.

Insurance was complex for both insurers and their clients. New Zealand, including Canterbury, has a higher rate of insurance coverage for earthquakes (up to 99 percent for homes and 82 percent for contents) than is typical for comparable economies. The February earthquake alone was the third most expensive insured natural catastrophe in history. This put unprecedented pressure on insurance companies which were receiving multiple claims. In addition, the Government’s Earthquake Commission (EQC) and private insurers were required to work together, faced with the challenge of determining which earthquake or aftershock had caused damage and whether they were dealing with a pre-existing or new claim.

Following the assessment of thousands of residential properties across greater Christchurch, Residential Red Zones were established. These were for areas so badly damaged it was deemed unlikely they could be built on for a considerable period of time, or that had buildings at risk from rock fall or cliff collapse and their protection was not seen as economical. The Government offered to buy over 7,000 Red Zone properties, and 98 per cent of owners accepted the offer.

The Government established the Wage Subsidy Scheme, which ensured employees continued to be paid in the aftermath of the February earthquake. The Scheme was operational six days after the earthquake, and $53 million was paid in the first week. By the end of June 2011, 20,000 employers and 50,000 employees had received a combined total of $202 million.

The Student Army shovelling silt from Christchurch streets.People and volunteer organisations from around Canterbury responded immediately to help those affected. They provided emergency supplies, funds and practical support, such as shovelling contaminated silt off the streets and supplying water to homes.

There was an outpouring of generosity from people around New Zealand and overseas. The New Zealand Red Cross Earthquake Appeal alone raised $128 million, while the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal launched by Prime Minister John Key raised nearly $100 million. Many community groups and organisations ran their own fundraising campaigns, and thousands of people volunteered their time and skills.

This support contributed to the many initiatives encouraging people in Canterbury to prioritise their health and wellbeing during the recovery process.

The Summer of Fun events are an example. They have brought people together annually since 2012. Funded and coordinated by central and local government, churches and the YMCA, it has hosted 200 events and attracted 37,500 people. Another example is the Christchurch City Council’s ‘Share an Idea’ campaign. This facilitated a conversation with the greater Christchurch community to share ideas on how they wanted their central city to be redeveloped. A number of these ideas have been implemented, including the inner-city Margaret Mahy Family Playground.

When it came to rebuilding Christchurch, there was no roadmap that could be followed for an event of this scale. While this made recovery difficult, it also encouraged positive innovation across all sectors.

Evidence of innovation can be seen throughout greater Christchurch. One example is SCIRT (The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team), which brought together public and private sector organisations to rebuild the horizontal infrastructure in Christchurch. These alliances encouraged innovation and value for money, with all partners having the shared goal of working together to provide the best result for the city.

The Re:START container mall which opened in October 2011 and is now a popular tourist attraction.The Re:START container mall is another example. It has become a popular tourist attraction and is credited with helping make Christchurch number six in the Lonely Planet guide to the ‘must visit’ places in the world.

The novel container mall was set up to bring people back to the city before new buildings were developed. It has grown steadily since it opened in October 2011, with more than 50 businesses, regular market stalls, street performers and buskers.

The EQ Recovery Learning website has been developed to support others faced with rebuilding their city and lives following an earthquake. The website has been divided into five common themes that are useful to consider when working in recovery.

Understanding the Recovery Context

The unique challenges in recovery are many. Some examples include: psychosocial impacts, population movements, workforce resilience, phases of recovery, and scaling up and down. The constant change and uncertainty is challenging for everyone.

Leadership and Governance

Leadership in recovery is different. It is chaotic and exhausting where black and white becomes many shades of grey. Many rise to the occasion and take on leadership roles to help their communities. Good governance provides clarity in chaos for setting the direction for the future.

Resource Allocation

Resource Allocation sounds simple but is often complex with sensitive trade-offs required. It’s about how we are able to plan, prioritise and mobilise resources in recovery.

Communication and Community Engagement

Traditional communication is not enough. The foundation for open and honest partnerships with communities comes from engagement, meaningful and regular communication.

Conditions for Innovation

A disaster has destroyed the box so you have to think outside it. There is a unique chemistry of circumstance that supports new thinking and ways of doing things.

Explore these themes.