It is a simile often dedicated to natural disaster sites – ‘It looks like a war zone’.
Dr Mark Quigley (PhD 2007) has been witness to such a scenario, living through the nightmare of the recent Canterbury, New Zealand, earthquakes. Eighteen months of intermittent and unpredictable terror have resulted in locals looking for a comparison to help them interpret their experience.
“Some people have likened the experience of living through the Canterbury earthquake sequence to living through the bombing raids of the Second World War,” Dr Quigley informs.
“There is uncertainty over the exact time and location of the next quake, how long the shaking will last, how much damage it will cause and when the sequence will be ‘over’”.
Dr Quigley is in the remarkable position of being both expert and resident. After completing his PhD at the University of Melbourne, the Canadian-born scientist moved to Christchurch in 2008, where he is a Senior Lecturer in Active Tectonics and Geomorphology at the University of Canterbury.
Dr Quigley and his partner live in the ‘Red Zone’ – the Christchurch area worst affected by the quakes. Daily life is a struggle, as major earthquakes in February and June 2011 left residents without basic utilities and cost nearly 200 lives.
“Following the major earthquakes, we had to live without power, water, sewerage, drainage and Internet for weeks. It was a bit like camping in our house,” Dr Quigley recalls.
Damage to infrastructure caused by tremors and liquefaction means that certain health hazards have lingered.
“The dust pollution from the fine-grained sands that were ejected from the ground during the liquefaction was bad for our respiratory health. E coli is also in this material, as most of the sewerage drains ruptured in our suburb,” he says.
The destruction means Dr Quigley has had to contend with a condemned house and a move to the lesser-affected western side of the city. Such upheaval involves its own rigmarole.
“There is tremendous stress in dealing with insurance companies, the Earthquake Commission, banks and lawyers; there is tremendous uncertainty and lots of waiting on phone calls or emails,” Dr Quigley says.
In the midst of this chaos, Dr Quigley has become one of New Zealand’s foremost experts on the Canterbury earthquakes and the recovery process.
In December he was awarded the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize, reward for his efforts at educating and informing New Zealanders about the nation’s worst natural disaster since the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake.
This necessitates a finely balanced approach, as the professional demands of scientists and reporters do not always match.
“Dealing with media is definitely stressful as reporters and scientists work in different ways and on drastically different time-scales,” Dr Quigley says.
“For the scientist, it is important to be able to respond immediately and succinctly to questions that aren’t always in one’s immediate area of expertise. It is also important to know when to say ‘I don’t know the answer to that’”.
Questions can be unexpected, while the impact of an expert’s advice can alter public confidence in disaster management and recovery.
“It is a challenge to get the balance right between the cautious optimism required to facilitate recovery and the scientific realism of the situation at hand,” Dr Quigley says.
He believes New Zealanders are cognisant of the danger beneath them.
“On average, New Zealand gets more than two earthquakes of magnitude six or greater each year and most New Zealanders have felt earthquakes at some stage in their lives,” he says.
“The public is, for the most part, well aware of our residence astride a tectonically active plate boundary. This provides for a tremendously beautiful landscape, but the cost is that the frequency of earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions is much greater than in many countries.”
The New Zealand Government is suitably prepared, developing comprehensive disaster management plans, highlighted by the 2009 formation of the multi-party Natural Hazards Research Platform.
Dr Quigley believes New Zealand was in as good a position as could be expected to deal with a catastrophic earthquake.
“I would say they were very well prepared. The Natural Hazards Research Platform was set up to increase New Zealand’s resilience to natural hazards via high quality collaborative research and response,” Dr Quigley says.
“In this first ‘big test’ the platform came through very well, although there are always lessons to be learned.”
Foremost among these are revised building codes and improved land use decisions – developments that recognise Christchurch’s vulnerability to further earthquakes.
“The recovery process is under way and science is playing a key role. More efficient, safer and more comfortable houses and buildings are being constructed,” Dr Quigley says.
“This will make Christchurch a better place to live and work in the future.”
Further help has come with the recently established Earthquake Commission, which fulfils insurance claims to New Zealand residential property owners for damage caused by natural disasters.
“The Commission has had to cope with a tremendous financial and logistic challenge and has, in most cases, come through well,” Dr Quigley says.