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

February 22, 2011 |  1:52 pm


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