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SEI Team's New Zealand Earthquake Investigation -- Day Two

Damage More Severe Than September

An 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 Standards Committee on Seismic Rehabilitation. 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 2 – Tuesday, April 5

Our day started off at the Arts Centre, which is the Emergency Operation Center. Our contact, Paul, was busy in meetings so we ended up sitting around for about an hour. There were two ladies at an espresso machine making wonderful and free lattes, which made the wait very easy to bear. Paul got out of his meeting and delivered the bad news that our escorts had been co-opted by some business owners.  Because there are still a great number of unstable buildings in the “red zone” – the area of the Central Business District that was most damaged – we cannot enter the cordoned area without a fire/life safety escort.  However, today Civil Defense was letting business owners into the red zone to retrieve belongings, but with an escort (including the ones arranged for us).

As gracious as Paul had been thus far, he stepped it up another notch by offering to drive us around the red zone since we were without escort and it was raining quite heavily.  We all hopped into a van he obtained the keys for and headed out to the perimeter of the cordoned area.  We got up to a checkpoint where we all had to present the passes we had been issued the day before to gain entrance. 

I’ve been to a few major earthquakes before with ASCE/SEI teams. The first was to Chile and the second was to New Zealand after the September earthquake. In both cases, the cities were very different than I assumed they would be. When you see pictures from an earthquake on the news, they only show the devastated buildings and other infrastructure. They don’t focus much on everything that is undamaged or only moderately damaged. So to go there and see something damaged but surrounded by a number of undamaged things changes your perspective.  This was NOT the case as we entered the red zone. 

The devastation was everywhere I looked.  This is what I pictured a major disaster area like.  There were scores of partially collapsed buildings, nothing but crushed cars lining the streets, with the only people in site being the police and army who were stationed to keep out looters and squatters.

Scenes of damage 

Driving through the red zone, we came to the first building that we could do a September-February comparison of – The Oxford Terrace Baptist Church. It was a large, one story unreinforced masonry church. In September, the shanking had caused its front to begin to pull away. That was shored up by some steel braces when we got there in October. Today, however, the church was mostly a pile of rubble.

Oxford Church before-after 2 

We drove by another old church, St. Paul’s.  It is an 1880’s unreinforced masonry church that suffered some damaged in September.  That damage was some moderate cracking of the URM walls, but there was no threat of collapse.  As with Oxford Terrace, unfortunately, this church has completely collapsed.

St. Pauls church

While driving around, Paul explained to us that they designated certain buidlings in the red zone as indicator buildings.  Those are select buildings representative of the typical buildings in the area.  The indicator buildings were photographed extensively after the earthquake and then again after each subsequent aftershock.  The idea is to get a sense for the stability of buildings by understanding how the indicator buildings are responding to aftershocks.  If an indicator buildings shows a substantial change or collapses after an aftershock, then that alerts everyone to the potential hazard contained in all that buildings that one building represents and the areas around those types of buildings should be evacuated.

After our tour of the red zone, we headed south east to Lyttelton, a small town that was very close to the epicenter.  The town is basically shut down.  The several block area where all the shops are was partially closed off.  Any restaurants or shops that were not in buildings that were damaged, were themselves closed down.  So our lunch plans were stalled as we had to head back toward Christchurch to find somewhere to eat.

Following lunch we headed north to Dallington and Kaiapoi.  We wanted to look at some of buildings and pedestrian bridges that we observed in October.  First we went past St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Dallington, which is not the same St. Paul’s in the red zone.  In September, a lateral spread of the ground caused by liquefaction ripped the one story wood church apart.  When we got there, we only found a vacant lot.  It appears the church had been torn down. 

We then went on to see a pedestrian bridge over the Avon River which was damaged in September and further damaged in February.

Twisted pedestrian bridge 

We then went to the Kaiapoi Train Station, which had rotated significantly due to liquefaction in Septmber.  It appeared to have rotated even more in February.

Following that, we drove back to Christchurch and walked around the outer edge of the red zone.  After that, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel for dinner.  While waiting for dinner we talked a little more about how amazed we were at how widespread the damage was in the Central Business District. 

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