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Friday, March 4, 2011

Civic workers begin Christchurch's salvation

Civic workers begin Christchurch's salvation
Last updated 05:00 05/03/2011

Peter Donald knows how badly his city is damaged and admits he's daunted by the mammoth task to rebuild it. But Annette Purvis has seen the way Cantabrians and Kiwis have responded to the crisis and knows it can be done.

Christchurch is on its knees. Much of the city and thousands of homes are condemned and vital infrastructure is severely damaged. Authorities say it could be five years before the rubble is cleared, such is the scale of the carnage.

"I think everyone was just starting to sort of think that maybe we're over the hump, we're getting out of the danger zone, and I think that's probably what's affected people most – the timing of it, I guess," Mr McDonald says.

"When everyone thought things were coming up we've just been cut down in a major way. And not only are we back down to square one, we've gone past square one and we're minus three."

More than 130 people are working out of the Emergency Operations Centre at the Christchurch Art Gallery, where they are expected to remain for another two weeks. They are the people who have been tasked with co-ordinating the relief and recovery operation and preparing the city to move forward.

Employed in Christchurch City Council's rebuild and recovery team from the first quake, Mr McDonald is an operations manager responsible for silt removal and getting water and waste services working again.

After working so hard to get the city back on track after the first quake, he admits to "a certain amount of frustration, depression" at being dealt such a severe second blow.

"The things that we worked for, strived for, to keep the city running and keep things operating and do our best for the people of Christchurch, I guess, it's suddenly been decimated."

The damage was extraordinary, and their best efforts are being swallowed up in the immensity of it. "We're only just starting to scratch the surface – just the fact that we've already moved 180,000 tonnes of silt, and that's not the end of it. In the first earthquake we probably moved 30 [thousand tonnes] so you can probably make a reasonable comparison out of that."

The rebuilding task is "absolutely" daunting, he says. "Every time I go out and look around, it's like, still, where are we going to get started?

"Where we're at, at the moment, is still the initial response and that's going to take some time yet. But certainly we're going to have to turn our minds to how we're going to fix this."

Emergency Operations Centre manager Murray Sinclair, who was at an emergency management conference in Wellington when the quake hit, said that, even after watching television news footage while waiting at the airport, it took three days for the scale of the disaster to hit him.

He arrived in Christchurch that night to scenes of ruin and staff in shock.

"I don't think people have got an appreciation of the scale of this event. Even seeing bits on TV, connecting all the dots together, the buildings are destroyed, the infrastructure, the process for recovery. We're talking about the infrastructure from September taking two years to get going. Well, this is far worse than September was."

The recovery process will take around five years, he says. People know this is a long term-thing and are self-managing and not working themselves into the ground as in September. Others have given up on the city, too fearful to stay on.

As council employees, whose job is to make Christchurch work, it's tough to see the city humbled. "People get passionate about their work, and to have it impacted so severely, certainly impacts on them. But give them credit, most of the staff realise that we'll go through a grieving process, then we've got to get up and look forward to rebuilding the city."

For Christchurch City Council's building evaluation manager, Steve McCarthy, the feeling is the same. "We've worked pretty hard since September to get things set up and operating right and we were on the threshold of starting to rebuild the city ... we were on the cusp of a big rebuild and it seemed achievable.

"The Boxing Day quake put us back a wee bit but we were OK, we could cope. Then we ended up in the situation where this one is many times worse than the September one and it's just an even bigger, enormous task."

They are focused on demolishing as many unsafe buildings during the state of emergency as possible. If critically damaged buildings are not sorted by then, it will further immobilise the city.

Engineers are doing about 11,000 inspections a day to assess the safety of homes and buildings. In the immediate aftermath of the quake they had up to 90 building inspectors in the CBD alone. Around 50,000 homes were to have been inspected by Thursday night.

"The scale of the devastation is just enormous," Mr McCarthy says. "It's actually quite overwhelming. I feel sad for the businesses and for the people. People's lives have been destroyed by this, you know."

Working in the welfare team, Annette Purvis understands how bad things are but knows it can be done.

"We're all in here for the city. It's not spoken about but it's almost that shoulder-to-shoulder thing. I don't think anyone ever questions why we're here."

"Leaving the city? I spoke to a friend of mine this morning and it just wouldn't occur to her, wouldn't occur to me, to go. A lot of it's still here and the people are still here, the Port Hills are still here. We can fix buildings. It's just a shame that we had to lose people.

"Have faith and believe. You don't become strong without adversity. It's part of life, isn't it. It's how you go on that counts."

- The Dominion Post

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