‘Christchurch’s rebuild could take decades’

In February 2011, a devastating earthquake struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch, killing 185 people. Since then, an army of engineers from around the world has been working on the rebuild. The Local speaks to Italian seismic engineer Clara Caponi, who joined the team earlier this year, about the challenges of restoring the city and ensuring its long-term safety.

'Christchurch's rebuild could take decades'
Clara Caponi, a seismic engineer, moved to Christchurch six months ago to work on the rebuild project. Photo supplied by Carla Caponi.

How did you get the job working on the restoration of Christchurch? Had you had much experience of similar work in Italy?

I knew that there were lots of opportunities for seismic engineers in Christchurch following the earthquakes. I submitted my CV and then attended a job expo in London which showcased overseas work opportunities. I had an initial interview with Opus International Consultants at the expo, which went well, and then I continued the job application process via Skype. I moved to Christchurch about six months ago.

After graduating with an MSc in Earthquake Engineering from the ROSE School in Pavia I worked as a seismic engineer for Studio Ingegneria in Parma for 4.5 years. I specialised in the design and structural retrofitting of complex structures such as hospitals, cultural heritage buildings and universities.

One of the main projects I am currently working on for Opus is the restoration of the Sacred Heart Church in Timaru. The severe earthquake damage to Christchurch’s Anglican and Catholic cathedrals has left Timaru’s basilica as one of the most important examples of religious architecture in the Canterbury region, so it is vital to strengthen and restore this building for future generations to enjoy.

What are the similarities/differences between this kind of work and working on heritage buildings in Italy?

In Italy, we have more national authorities so the consent process for restoration work is quite complex. The consent process in New Zealand is a lot quicker and more streamlined.

This is likely due to the impact of the earthquakes and the sheer volume of consents which need to be processed in a timely manner to keep the pace of the rebuild moving along. The buildings are much older in Italy so the materials are different and we tend to use non-intrusive restoration techniques.

The Christchurch Central City Recovery Plan has set out the future shape of the city, so we need to keep this in mind when carrying out restoration work.

What exactly does the process of restoration in Christchurch involve?

It is very complex as 80 percent of Christchurch’s central business district was destroyed by the February 2011 earthquake and the central city was cordoned off for over two and a half years. Imagine a city the size of Florence with almost all of its central city area destroyed and you get an idea of the scale of the disaster. In addition many areas of the eastern suburbs have now been red-zoned and these areas will be turned into parks/reserves. The city has been redefined and the central business district will be a lot smaller than it was before.

All of these factors mean that the progress of repair and restoration is a long-term process. We need to consider various factors such as the ground conditions, urban design and strengthening methods before carrying out any work.

How much of Christchurch will be able to be restored? Will it be very similar to what it was before or are any major changes being made?

Some buildings will be able to be restored but this depends on a variety of factors such as repair costs, the value of the building and urban design regulations. In some cases we will completely restore the building and in other cases we will preserve heritage facades and construct a new building behind the facade.

Christchurch will be a modern seismically-designed city which contains important heritage elements. It will be interesting to see how the old and the new blend together. I think the city will be quite different to how it was before. The various precincts which are being created along with anchor projects such as the Avon River Park will make the city a vibrant and exciting place to live. I really enjoy living in an evolving city which is combining elements of the past and future into a very dynamic blend. 

Is it possible to strengthen the buildings so they would be more protected from any future earthquakes?

All buildings must meet the seismic strength codes put in place by the government after the earthquake. Many owners are choosing to strengthen their buildings to over 100 percent of the code requirements.

How big is the project – how many people are working on it and how long is it expected to take?

The rebuild of Christchurch is a $40 million project. Opus has 350 people working full-time on the residential and commercial rebuild. This includes people from all over the world with specialist skills – particularly those with seismic experience. It is really exciting to be working with people from many different countries including Greece, England, Ireland, Australia, Russia, Japan and China. It is a very vibrant atmosphere to be working in and I am relishing the experience. The timeframe depends on many factors including insurance settlements, planning regulations and the consultation process. It is expected to take decades to fully rebuild the city.

What are the biggest challenges of the job?

Language and communication issues. While I feel quite confident speaking English, writing up formal reports can be difficult when you are using your second language. I have already seen a great improvement in my English though as I am using it 24/7. I have also been learning a new system as New Zealand buildings and structures are quite different to those in Italy.

I am really enjoying the opportunity to take on a more senior role in projects. As there aren’t as many seismic engineers in New Zealand, I have many opportunities that I would not have in Italy. Being given a higher level of responsibility is an exciting challenge for me.

What are the risks, to workers and to the buildings?

Ongoing earthquakes – we still get small shakes every now and then. Opus has an excellent health and safety training programme so I feel that I am safe at all times. If a building isn’t deemed safe to enter I carry out a visual inspection and then examine site drawings etc.

How does it feel being able to see, and be such a big part of, the town being brought back to life? How will you feel when the work is done?

It’s very exciting. I never dreamed that I would be part of recreating a city and it is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I feel like I am part of a community and that we are all working to achieve the same positive outcomes. It is very rewarding to be part of such a valuable project and I am sure that the work I am doing now will have a great impact on my life both now and in the future. I feel proud to be part of this exciting rebuild effort.

Have you had any reaction from the local community?

I have had lots of positive feedback from Christchurch residents. They are so grateful to have people from overseas relocating here to help rebuild their city. When I tell people what I am doing they are always so welcoming and I truly feel like I am part of the local community now. It feels really wonderful to be helping to build a brighter future for Canterbury.

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Central and southeast Italy struck by more than two dozen small earthquakes in less than 36 hours

A number of earthquakes struck the region of Molise on the nights of August 15th and August 16th and the morning of August 17th. An earthquake was also felt in Le Marche near the port city of Ancona.

Central and southeast Italy struck by more than two dozen small earthquakes in less than 36 hours
Photo: ChiccoDodiFC/Depositphotos

A magnitude 5.2 earthquake struck four kilometres from the southeastern town of Montecilfone, a village of 1,348 people, in the region of Molise, on the night of August 16th just after 8pm, according to Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV), which monitors seismic activity.

More than 90,000 people live within 20 kilometres of the epicentre, according to INGV.

“We felt a very strong shake,” Montecilfone's mayor, Franco Pallotta, told Italian daily Repubblica. The mayor added that he was touring homes to assess the damage.In Campomarino, a small town of just over 7,000 people situated 15 kilometres from the epicentre, residents left their homes and were encouraged to gather in the main square by Italy's civil defence coordination department. 

No casualties have yet been reported, although the Civil Protection Department, which coordinates relief in such natural disasters, is still investigating.
“The necessary checks are in progress for any damage to people or things,” it said in a statement, adding in a subsequent communiqué that “minor damage” had been recorded. The mayors in the nearby towns are verifying any buildings vulnerable to seismic activity and ensuring assistance to the local population. 
“At the moment there are no requests for assistance, nor have collapses been reported to the operating rooms of the fire department. The teams that went out on reconnaissance have found, for the moment, only the fall of some cornices,” tweeted Italy's fire department regarding the main earthquake in Molise.
The mayor of Aquaviva Collecroce, another town near the epicentre of the larger earthquake in the province of Molise, communicated on Facebook that the town's football pitch had been made available for residents to sleep at. 

“I urgently need technicians to assess the damage,” wrote Francesco Trolio, Aquaviva Collecroce's mayor on August 16th. 

“The area is little known from the seismic point of view due to a limited documentation of historical seismicity,” writes INGV in its statement. 

A 2.6 magnitude earthquake was also registered nine kilometres from Ancona on Friday August 17th on the coast in the province of Le Marche. No one was hurt and no damage was reported, according to Ancona local daily Il Corriere Adriatico. Six other small earthquakes have so far been recorded in the regions of Molise and Le Marche today. 
More than 20 other quakes ranging between 2 and 3.1 magnitude were recorded by INGV since the morning of Thursday August 16th in the two regions. 
Much of the fear local residents are feeling is due to recent earthquakes that have devastated nearby regions in central Italy. On August 24th, 2016, 297 people died when a magnitude 6.0 earthquake destroyed much of the town of Amatrice.
An earthquake in the Umbrian town of Norcia in October of the same year destroyed much of the city centre, but somehow miraculously no one was hurt. 
In August 2017, two people died when an earthquake struck the southern island of Ischia. Two strong earthquakes also occurred in the provinces of Molise – where the latest shock has been felt – and Abruzzo in April this year.