There are significant times in life that become pivotal moments.
Without a doubt, for many Christchurch people the February 22nd 2011, 6.3 magnitude earthquake was one of those.
In the five years since, there have been a lot of advances in our understanding of how different building systems and components perform under these types of seismic loading.
The UC Quake Centre is at the forefront of bringing some of these new understandings from seismic research and industry together, in the one place.
As the aftershocks continue to roll on, we asked some of our Quake Centre people, where they were at precisely 12:51pm - when the earthquake struck.
Dr. Robert Finch, Director of the UC Quake Centre.
On Tuesday February 22nd 2011, Quake Centre Director Dr. Robert Finch was working from his home in West Melton.
Although 25kms away from the city centre he felt the quake strongly.
“It was significant enough to throw one cupboard open,” says Robert.
Since the 7.1 magnitude main event on September 4th 2010, rumbling aftershocks had become the new normal. So at first Robert didn’t think too much of it.
But about twenty minutes later, he got up from his desk thinking, ”hmmm… that was a bit stronger than ones we’ve had in recent times, I’d better just check.”
Robert’s inkling was right.
The extent of the disaster soon became clear when he turned on the television and saw the devastation right there on the screen in front of him.
At that stage, Dr. Robert Finch had been leading another research organisation and the Quake Centre didn’t exist.
“So out of this disastrous event was born the Quake Centre,“ says Robert.
An initiative set up via the University of Canterbury to bring together the best of seismic research and industry knowledge.
“The target was to get industry to support us right from day one,” says Dr. Finch.
The industry sector canvassed the idea, and the unanimous feedback was that the Quake Centre would be a ‘good thing.’ A platform for those in the (seismic) know to get together, talk about what’s happened and what’s going to have to happen in a more ongoing fashion. What lessons can be learnt and where are the 'new' gaps in our earthquake engineering that need some attention if we are to improve the future seismic resilience of the country.
Suddenly the power of bringing these two forces back together - industry practitioners and academics - was rediscovered.
Robert is more than pleased with the results, “The Quake Centre is a really good initiative and one that’s starting to demonstrate what can be delivered back to our industry partners as direct benefits.”
Greg Preston, Manager of Research and Education, UC Quake Centre.
Even the very people involved in seismic research on a daily basis and who know to expect the unexpected at any time, were caught off guard by the February 22nd earthquake.
The Quake Centre’s Greg Preston found himself in a very ‘interesting’ position in the Billings building on High Street in the central city.
Despite being a building with reinforced, strengthened masonry, when the quake struck, walls began crumbling around him.
“I had just stepped out of the toilet - very embarrassing! And I was jammed in the doorway as the back of the wall was falling away,” says Greg.
Since that terrifying moment five years ago, Greg can recognize a number of important lessons learned…
“We’ve learned masses since then, like that we know less than we thought we did, and perhaps we had a little bit of complacency there,” says Greg.
He adds, “I think we’ve learnt an awful lot about the resilience of the community and how important the people are and the systems they’ve set up, to be flexible and to take advantage of the vast amount of skills there are in the community”
A lot of these hugely important lessons around seismic resilience are still being formalized, and the Quake Centre continues to play a very important role in making that happen.
Richard Smith, Manager of Science and Education, EQC.
As Manager of Science and Education for the EQC, Richard Smith has a lot of earthquake knowledge and expertise. But this event still came as a shock.
Richard was in an emergency management conference in Wellington, along with several colleagues from the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management when the 22nd of February earthquake shook the city of Christchurch.
“We immediately made our way to the National Crisis Management Centre under the Beehive to begin the job of initial needs assessment,” says Richard.
Soon afterwards they were in the thick of it - deployed to Christchurch to assist with coordinating the response.
Richard now brings all of this seismic expertise and experience to the Quake Centre as an industry elected Board Member.
Asked how things have changed in the last five years since this devastating earthquake, Richard says,
“I have a much deeper appreciation of the human dimensions of the consequences of disasters.”
The Quake Centre is proud to be facilitating the move towards creating safer and more resilient communities.
Prof. Greg MacRae, Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, University of Canterbury.
"I was away for the September 2010 earthquake,” says Professor Greg MacRae.
He was overseas, on the job attending an earthquake conference in Macedonia.
But it was a very different story come the 22nd of February 2011.
“I was on the fourth storey of the Civil and Mechanical Engineering building, at the University of Canterbury - and it shook very hard,” says Prof. MacRae.
“I had someone else in my room and we tried to get under the desk to stop anything from landing on us. It was a bit hard to squeeze in there with this other person…and it was terrifying.”
As an earthquake engineer, Prof. Greg MacRae studies the theory of earthquakes, including a lot of testing, but this was of little comfort to him on the day.
“It’s very different to be in it and to know that there’s a force out there that’s much stronger than the forces we apply through actuators, and we don’t know how it’s being controlled…
…we don’t know if it’s going to stop or keep going, and whether the building, even though we’ve designed it a certain way, is constructed to actually withstand the magnitude that hits it,” says Prof. MacRae.
Perhaps we can all take comfort in the fact that, even for people who study earthquakes and have an understanding of seismic risk, such a major event is no less scary and still takes everyone by surprise.