Lessons for International Programmes from the Christchurch, New Zealand Earthquakes

by Dr. Laura Sessions

In February 2011, I was in Christchurch’s central business district on a lunch break when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck. An immense roar culminated in 10 seconds of violent shaking. Buildings swayed, sidewalks buckled, facades crumbled, and people screamed. When it stopped, we were surrounded by clouds of dust, piles of rubble and crowds of confused and scared people.

At the time, I ran a study abroad service provider, and luckily we did not have any students in the area, but most of our staff were in a fifth story office in the hardest hit area of the city. Somehow we all managed to escape uninjured and evacuate the central city, but we saw some harrowing scenes. Water and silt filled the gutters and streets until eventually we had to roll up our jeans and wade barefoot through the deeper pools, trying not to think about what was in the murky water. We passed cars swallowed up by sinkholes, and brick buildings that lost their entire front facades, ending up like dollhouses with every room visible from the street. People gathered in their yards to listen to radios, as a thick cloud of dust and smoke spread outwards from the CBD.

This earthquake was New Zealand’s third deadliest natural disaster, killing 185 people and causing widespread destruction. At least 6,600 people were treated for minor injuries and Christchurch Hospital alone treated 220 major trauma cases connected to the quake. A cordon prevented public access to the CBD for over two years. If this earthquake had happened in a low or middle-income country with less efficient emergency response and infrastructure, the toll would likely have been much worse.

New Zealand lies on an active fault zone and earthquakes are experienced regularly, but still none of us were prepared for the scale of this natural disaster. Here are some of the lessons we learned that may help you to prepare your students and staff in seismically active regions.

Preparing for earthquakes

1)     Create a plan for where to meet. I was on a lunch break when the Christchurch earthquake struck, and most of my staff were in the office. Luckily, we were able to find each other in the chaotic aftermath, but it would have been much easier if we had made a plan for where to meet, along with a back-up location if our first choice wasn’t possible. Consider what structures might become unstable and where is likely to be a safe, open space to shelter. If you have students spread throughout a wider area, it will be even more challenging yet more important to know where everyone should gather. Consider creating maps that indicate all student and staff residences and each student’s primary and secondary rally points. Your office(s) should be indicated on the map as well as the location of fire stations, hospitals, etc.

2)     Think about communication. Directly after the Christchurch earthquake, phone lines were down and cellphone networks were overloaded. Calling anyone was virtually impossible, but texts still managed to sneak through. Ensure that students understand that they should text the appropriate person in your organization immediately following an earthquake to check in and establish contact. You may also want to consider having key staff carry a satellite phone or satellite texting device.

3)     Prepare emergency supplies. We were without power for several days, water for over a week, and without an operating toilet for several weeks. It could have been much longer (and was in some parts of the city). Especially in low and middle-income countries, road damage often means that large-scale rescue efforts cannot easily reach communities that need emergency assistance. If local resources are overwhelmed, it may be a few days before significant help arrives. Supplies should include drinking water (at least three gallons per person), non-perishable food (three days per person), toilet paper, soap, flashlights/batteries, first aid supplies, blankets or sleeping bags, and a radio. You might also consider a generator and fuel. Be sure to schedule annual checks of your supplies to replace water and expired food.

4)     Assign roles and responsibilities and use staff who don’t live in the area if possible. Everyone in our office was affected personally by the earthquake. Some lost their homes, others had injured or traumatized family members to look after, and everyone was dealing with the emotional strain of what had happened and the ongoing aftershocks. None of us was in a great position to be able to help students with so much going on in our own lives. Consider whether you could bring in staff from elsewhere to help in an emergency (although local staff will almost definitely need to handle the immediate aftermath). Think carefully about who will be responsible for students, who will communicate with families and the media, and who can administer first aid – while also managing their own families and personal circumstances.

During an earthquake

1)     Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Several people were killed by falling concrete as they ran from buildings onto the street where I was standing. Drop, cover and hold on whenever you feel shaking.

2)     Beware of fire and fumes. I still remember the mixture of gas and crushed concrete that wafted over the city that day. Fire is the most common hazard after an earthquake. Never use a lighter or matches near damaged areas and leave the area if you smell gas or fumes from other chemicals. If you can do so safely, shut off gas and electrical lines.

3)     Don’t go back into unstable buildings. I’m ashamed to say that I learned this one from experience. My laptop and phone were both in the office, and when I realized I didn’t know anyone’s phone numbers by heart, I panicked and went back in to find them. I managed to get back out unharmed, but I was just lucky. With all of the broken glass, falling debris, potential for fires, and constant aftershocks, it could have ended very differently. Keep your phone with you, memorize at least one relative’s phone number and keep a backup in the cloud.

After an earthquake

1)     Expect aftershocks. In Christchurch, there were more than 361 aftershocks in the week following the quake, some as big as magnitude 5.9. There were literally tens of thousands more in the hours, days, months and even years to follow. You need to be sure staff and students will not only remain safe during aftershocks, but also that their mental health is not affected. This may be a factor in your decision of whether to keep the program in situ or arrange for it to be moved or cancelled.

2)     Ensure all important files are backed up and easy to access outside the office. It was over three months before we could get back into our office building. Even then, two people were given access for one hour and could take only what would fit into two garbage cans. Luckily, we had our complete file server backed up remotely, and we were able to get back up and running within a week or so. Think about what you would do if your office was destroyed or inaccessible for any length of time, and make a contingency plan. In particular, consider what files you would need immediately, such as emergency contact details. How would staff work with no premises and possibly no computers or equipment? What equipment would you need to replace? How would you handle communications?

3)     Be prepared for lots of international attention. The media love a good earthquake, and I had people ringing me from overseas before I had even spoken with my husband in Christchurch. Be prepared for a quick response to families especially, who will be concerned about their loved ones. Be sure you have an easy way to disseminate updates and be sure that all stakeholders know where to look for them beforehand. For example, you could have an emergency page created on your website that can be activated if needed or communicate via Twitter or Facebook.

NOTE: As a result of her experience following the Christchurch earthquakes, Laura authored the book Quake Dogs.