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New Zealand earthquake surprises experts with its level of destruction; California parallels seen


When the New Zealand earthquake struck Tuesday, Jason Ingham was preparing for a seminar on earthquake building standards in a Christchurch hotel, which began to shake.

He and his colleagues from the University of Auckland had studied damaged structures after the last Christchurch quake, which struck in September of last year. But he said they could feel immediately that Tuesday’s quake was more intense.

Ingham and the others quickly evacuated their hotel. Across Cashel Street, they saw people climbing out of the top floors of a separate hotel, which leaned to one side.

Throughout the city center, there was chaos. From the initial devastation alone, Ingham said he knew there would be serious injuries. As his group left the city, they saw many victims who were bloodied and bandaged.

“There was a mass exit of people in every direction,” Ingham said. “The first mode was just to survive.”

His group safely evacuated to a motel about a mile outside the city center. Based on initial observations and reports, Ingham said he believed this quake was very different from the previous one he studied. Although it had a lower magnitude, it occurred closer to the city, and ground acceleration was much higher. And though most of the damage last time occurred to unreinforced-masonry buildings, many modern buildings were damaged Tuesday, Ingham said.

“Our instinct is that this exceeded the loads that even the modern buildings were designed for. We are almost certain,” said Ingham, who is an associate professor of civil engineering. “The assumption is that an earthquake of this size would have caused damage in any modern city anywhere.”

He and the other researchers planned to travel back into Christchurch Wednesday morning. He said there was a chance they would be turned away due to the ongoing search-and-rescue efforts within the city.

Whereas after the last quake he researched unreinforced-masonry buildings almost exclusively, he said this time the biggest question would be how newer buildings fared. In the last 30 or so years, New Zealand engineers have followed the same guidelines used in other quake-vulnerable regions such as California and Japan, Ingham said.

“The thing that will attract a very large amount of attention from people all over the world is the performance of the modern buildings that have been designed to current standards that still received damage,” Ingham said. “At least in the city center, almost every building suffered some sort of damage.”

Ingham noted in previous research that, compared with other cities and towns in New Zealand, Christchurch had taken a more passive approach to updating its building codes. He said that about half of all the buildings in Christchurch were unreinforced masonry.

Many of the older buildings were completely destroyed Tuesday, he said. He believes a greater portion of the modern buildings will be recoverable.

“With some modern buildings ... there will be cosmetic damage," he said, "but the structural integrity is still OK.”

Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC, said Tuesday’s quake also provided a reminder that the most destructive quake can be an aftershock to the main quake. Aftershocks since the September main quake, which was centered in rural farmland, have been moving eastward in recent months, closer to Christchurch.

“Earthquakes don’t happen individually, but in sequences. We have to be prepared that when we get large earthquakes in California that we recognize that that means the seismic hazard has gone up, not down. One earthquake does not mean the end of story,” Jordan said.

In California, the southern San Andreas fault, which is ripe for a large earthquake, could buckle in a series of quakes, Jordan said.

Christchurch was devastated in large part because of the shallowness of the quake and the fact that the strongest shaking occurred precisely in the downtown area of one of New Zealand’s oldest cities. “It’s really the fact that you had a lot of buildings very close to the very strongest hypocenter," Jordan said, "which means the strongest shaking was right there in town."


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Photo: Rescuers search for survivors in a collapsed building in Christchurch. The quake struck just before 1 p.m., during the city's lunch rush, and the death toll was expected to climb. Credit: Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (18)

Reinforcing buildings is not a preventative to the collapse or disappearance of buildings during earthquakes. Yes, reinforcement could, possibly, help many, but, at the end of the day, living on the Ring of Fire carries great risk for European styled structures. Colonialism has its risks.

Your not an expert if something surprises you.

parallels seen, gee, the earth shook and buildings came down, that's a parallel?...who would have figured that would happen?

I really feel for the people in NZ. I have been paranoid about earthquakes ever since the 1994 quake we had in L.A. There have been so many big quakes in the past few years I can't help fearing that we are next. I hope every missing person in NZ gets rescued and there are no big aftershocks.



When the "Big One" hits Los Angeles and Southern California, it will make the Kiwi quake and 9/11 seem like "child's play" in terms of fatalities.

For example, the steel joints in many high-rise office buildings were apparently weakened by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and nothing has been done to repair them. To remove tenants from the buildings, while the potentially-critical work is underway, was deemed to be politically and economically unpalatable. Thus, the problems were swept under the rug and never addressed by building owners and the city’s politicians. Los Angeles may rue the day that this happened.

See http://naegeleblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/earthquakes-the-big-one-is-coming-to-at-least-los-angeles/

Dancing Scorpion is right. Modern Western life has its pleasures, but the nature of our buildings is a disaster waiting to happen in any earthquake zone.

If this quake had happened when Christchurch was still inhabited by Maori living in their traditional villages, the effect on their lives would have been minimal.

Bring the big one, bring on the death..... Since we cant control our over-reproducing habits, the host well clean the pool. By all means keep having babies though... more death is more.

I am sorry to hear about the Earth quake. What is going on in the world! My love goes out to all suffering

Whenever I think of earthquakes, I always think of the exhortation, Question Authority. After every major quake, there are revisions to building codes and other safety provisions, and The Authorities tell us we should be safe. Then, after dozens or hundreds of people are killed in the next major quake, these same Authorities look puzzled and say, "Golly - that's the first time we ever saw THAT kind of shaking..."

It is surprising that there are no comments to this story, since Californians have a natural empathy to earthquake victims.

Our prayers and best wishes are with the New Zealanders.

2012 people

Lou Bricano, every seismic event presents new facts that can not always be duplicated in the lab. The codes are rewritten based on the updated knowledge. Buildings in Christchurch that were not reinforced under new building codes suffered the most damage. So it is not a case of incompetence as you infer, but acting on increased knowledge. If you prefer to Question Authority, then please, by all means, go live in a unreinforced building.

Even the newest building standards are meant to allow the structure to stand long enough for the occupants to safely evacuate and get far enough away before it totally collapses. The old church was obviously not reinforced and ended up totally destroyed. There are a lot of buildings in SoCal subject to this same circumstance. A really BIG earthquake is less than 2 years away. I've just got a queezy feelin.

"Jason Ingham was preparing for a seminar on earthquake building standards in a Christchurch hotel." Hey editors, wouldn't it be more proper to say "Jason Ingham was in a Christchurch hotel preparing for a seminar on earthquake building standards"? One could say the original sentence means the seminar was about the building standards on the hotel only.

as a kiwi I recall the first quake a few months ago in Christchurch where thankfully there was no loss of life
but this one is so different..my families heartfelt prayers
tears and love go out to our people in christchurch..
we are hundreds of miles from christchurch so were unaffected
Kiwifella palmerston north new zealand

Dancing Scorpion,

Unfortunately, you're logic doesn't hold. "European-styled" structures are hardly the only type of multi-story structure built around the planet, and The Ring of Fire is hardly the only large seismic zone on the planet. I suppose you'd have the Japanese living in huts and Californians living in adobe dwellings. Give me a break.


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