Sunday, March 06, 2011

Science Sunday: Report On Christchurch

Part of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament lies in ruins.

A friend who lives in Christchurch, and who has moved out with his family until things settle down, points out that the violence of the lateral forces of the February 22 earthquake were unprecedented.

Measured as a fraction of gravitational pull, the horizontal force of the quake was 1.88 times the force of gravity. Building codes, he tells me, allow for horizontal force of 0.6g, at least in Wellington where everyone thought the next major quake would strike and where a good deal of building strengthening has been done. Not so.

Christchurch copped it back in September with lateral force of 1.26g, and a Richter scale reading of 7.1. The Christchurch quake's Richter force was a mere 6.3, but now over 200 people are dead, and of those a substantial proportion are foreign nationals. The pupils of an English-language school are still buried in the ruins of an office block which was never designed to withstand such forces, as are about 22 tourists under the collapsed steeple of Christchurch's chief building, Christ Church, which stands (more or less -- it may have to come down) right in the heart of the city and represents all that is British about the colonial heritage of this once-beautiful town.

One of the curious side-effects of the quake is soil liquefaction (video here). Large areas of the city have been flooded with water and sand. Teams of volunteers have been helping sweep up the sand for carrying away, and dumps have been set aside for it. People are saying that some 200,000 tons of sand have been moved. We've been seeing pictures on TV of sand mountains high enough to take your breath away.

Christchurch has had around 5,000 aftershocks since the first big quake back in September. The February 22 event is said to be one of them, and to that extent more or less predictable though its force and timing could not have been foreseen.

Will there be more, then? No-one really knows.

One day there is no doubt that Wellington will have an event of this magnitude, and one wonders of course whether the statistical chances of that have changed. There's really nothing to do but wait and see, and have an emergency kit ready to get one through until help arrives.

* * * * *

The organization and execution of the response in Christchurch seem to have been magnificent. Rescue specialists from around the world turned up in droves, and although a few people are still waiting for electricity and water and sanitation -- the full restoration of which will take months or years -- life is slowly returning to the city.

The need to rebuild much of the Christchurch city central business district raises some interesting avenues for guesswork, which goes something like this:

* Do professions like accountants and lawyers, or business administrations need expensive office space in the heart of the city?

* In the age of the Internet, can their work be spread outside, even to employees' or partners' homes?

* Can the reconstructed commercial space then be shrunk to fit the purpose of only occasional meetings or other reasons for people to congregate together?

* Would such arrangements hamper the ability of people to bounce ideas off each other as they do now when they gather around the water cooler?

* If business of this type disappeared into the suburbs, or to Club Med, what would be the prospects for retailers, and cafes, and bakeries, and pubs, and taxis, and all the other trades which depend on a busy town center to make their livings?

Can such change, if it happens, be planned for? I have my doubts about this, because no-one can foretell the future in such detail. So, if it can’t be planned then how will it come to pass?

I feel those words, which have largely disappeared from the New Zealand vocabulary -- "market forces" -- coming on!

* * * * *

The other big issue surfacing now is the matter of political attitudes and stances.

After many years of backbiting, rudeness, stupidity, backside-covering, short-sightedness, and many more nouns of this kind, New Zealanders have suddenly shown that they can pull together. Christchurch schoolchildren are taking lessons in Auckland; those whose homes have been destroyed have been taken in -- often by strangers -- and provided with shelter; opposition to the government’s policies for help and recovery has been toned down (except for a few of the more stupid left-wing bloggers). Can this test of the New Zealand character stick and carry the country forward on what Winston Churchill on another occasion called "the broad, sunlit uplands . . . "?

One would like to think so.

Country Bumpkin is the nome de plummage of my cousin, a
bibliophile and man of the world who lives in New Zealand.

Photographs (top to bottom) by David Wethey/NZPA via AP, Richard
Cosgrove/Christchurch Press via Reuters, Mark Mitchell/New
Zealand Herald
via AP, Martin Hunter/Getty, Iain McGreggor/
Christchurch Press
via Reuters, Mitchell/AFP-Getty, Hunter/Getty,
Brett Phipps/New Zealand Herald via AP.

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