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SEI Team's New Zealand Earthquake Investigation -- April 2011

Team Leader Robert Pekelnicky's Daily Journal

Robert PekelnickyAn ASCE-authorized Structural Engineering Institute reconnaissance team of five engineers traveled Monday, April 4, to Christchurch, New Zealand, to explore the causes of damage to infrastructure as a result of the magnitude 6.3 earthquake on Feb. 22. The team is being led by Robert Pekelnicky, P.E., S.E., LEED AP, M.ASCE, a structural engineer who is an associate principal at Degenkolb in San Francisco and is a member of the ASCE/SEI Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings Standards Committee. In this exclusive daily diary for ASCE, Pekelnicky relays the first-person experiences that he and the SEI team are going through in the earthquake zone.

Read each day's entry:

•   Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4


Day 1 – Monday, April 4


We all met up at 9 p.m. Saturday night at the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport.  The team consists of Brian Kehoe from Wiss, Janney, Elstner, who was with me on the SEI reconnaissance team last October after the September earthquake outside of Christchurch; Owen Rosenboom, also from WJE; Charlene Hails of MRP Engineering, and Matthew Speicher of the National Institute of Science and Technology.  All of us are members of the ASCE/SEI Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings Standards Committee, with the exception of Matthew, who is joining us on behalf of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. We all boarded the plane for the long 12-hour flight to Auckland followed by a short flight to Christchurch, where we would arrive around 8:30 a.m. Monday local time.  

Aside from being really long, the flight was uneventful. Clearing customs was another story. We were all pulled out of line because we indicated we were structural engineers here to look at earthquake damage. They wanted to make sure that we were not here to actually try to drum up and do some business without proper visas. Fortunately, we had our letter from ASCE stating our purpose, which is to observe the effects of the February earthquake on buildings and meet with local engineers and academics to glean information that can be taken back and incorporated into ASCE 31: Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings and ASCE 41: Seismic Upgrade of Existing Buildings.  With that, they were very welcoming to us, waived us through and wished us well. 

After getting to the hotel, we dropped off our luggage and began to return emails. We had heard that access to the Central Business District, where the most significant damage had occurred, had become very limited to nonessential personnel over the past week. So we were a little concerned that we would not be able to get into the cordoned-off area and observe the damage up close. But as it turned out Matthew ended up sitting next to someone from a firm that I had been in contact with because they had been so helpful to us on our October trip. That gentleman was very excited we were there because their firm uses ASCE 41 extensively in their practice.  I received an email from him directing us to contact a gentleman named Paul at the Emergency Operation Center, who would arrange access to the CBD for us. 

We got a hold of Paul, who told us to come by the Arts Centre (where the EOC has been set up) so we could fill out the paperwork and get our safety briefing. So we set out from our hotel walking across the main park to the west of the CBD. Our first observation was the amount of liquefaction in the park.  There was the remnants of ejected sand all over. Light posts were tilted. The walking paths were very uneven.  It was quite a sight.

Once we exited the park, we started to see damaged buildings on the outskirts of the CBD. One of the first big ones that caught our eye was a large red-brick unreinforced masonry building with large scaffolding up in front of it.  Several walls had failed out-of-plane, ejecting brick into the street below. 

Scaffolding on old unreinforced masonry building

Another brick building was next to catch our attention. This one had a large portion of the scaffolding along its side damaged. It appeared that the scaffolding had been put up to repair the building after the September earthquake, but did not fare well in this earthquake.

We then walked by and saw a gray stone masonry church that was severely damaged with a mangled nest of metal in front of it that was presumably scaffolding at one point.

Cathedral and scaffolding

After walking around the past of the western edge of the cordoned area, we arrived at the Arts Centre to meet with Paul. He was very welcoming, took us to fill out paperwork, and then sat us down to go over the safety rules inside the red zone. We were told that we would have urban search and rescue-trained firefighters with us while we were inside. There are a great number of buildings that have yellow tags, but are still rather unstable, in addition to those with red tags. The interesting thing was that a number of buildings received red tags, not because they were damaged, but because the building next to them had been damaged so severely that it presented a very real possibility of falling on that building. 

Once we wrapped up at the EOC, we headed back to the hotel to get some lunch. It was now near enough to check-in time that we were all able to finally get our rooms. We settled in quickly, then went and got some lunch. Following that, everyone came back to take a couple hours to shower and unwind.  We then wrapped up the night by having dinner with SEI President Roberto Leon, who’s been in Christchurch since before the earthquake. He shared with us his firsthand account of the city right after the earthquake (which you can read in his journal online). We all had a great dinner and returned to the hotel VERY ready for bed (3 hours of sleep in about 48 hours is a little draining), and eager for everything that we feel we will learn over the next four days.

  Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4