Any way you slice it, New Zealand’s latest earthquake is a tragedy. Tuesday’s magnitude 6.3 quake in Christchurch has taken some 110 lives. Another 200 people are still missing. This out of city population of 350,000, and a national population numbering only 4 million. [Scale this up to the United States; it’s as if 7500 people had died, and 15,000 were missing.] Structural damage has been extensive. Many residents remain without electricity or water, forcing evacuation of some areas. However, gasoline is scarce, and roads remain strewn with debris; movement throughout the area is problematic.  

As is often the case in such events, there is also occasion to celebrate the human spirit. Volunteers have stepped forward during the crisis to help with search and rescue. Their efforts have saved lives. Heartwarming stories have already begun to emerge. More will no doubt surface, extending into the recovery.

Another dimension of the human spirit much in evidence? The capacity to learn. Here are some of the bits and pieces we’re adding to our store of knowledge.

Natural science. Geologists tell us that although New Zealand as a whole has long been known to be seismically active, the area around Christchurch had been thought to be quiet. In retrospect, geologists are now saying that erosion from the mountains and hills has covered many of the surface features that might have warned of past seismic activity. Similar surprises await, worldwide…and not just about earthquake risk. Scientists now say that Tuesday’s earthquake was an aftershock of the quake which hit the area on September 3 of last year. That quake was ten times stronger, but the epicenter was deeper and more rural. Though it caused a billion dollars of property damage, it took no lives.

Social science. Just as elsewhere, the elderly have proved particularly vulnerable. More than 200 elderly have been evacuated from rest homes in the area. People have been concerned about the welfare of their pets. Gawkers, though few in number, have ignored pleas from authorities and entered the area, complicating the rescue efforts. Some looting has occurred. This and other behavior conforms to patterns seen in other disasters.

Policy. Already, news reports are beginning to speak of the difficulties in building public awareness to earthquake risk in the Christchurch area. Others mention resistance to changes in building codes in the years leading up to the present. Signs are that, as elsewhere, unreinforced masonry construction has proven particularly vulnerable to the hazard.

International. Many of the dead are foreign nationals, in New Zealand either for work or on holiday. Other cities worldwide are taking notice of the Christchurch event and using the occasion to reevaluate their own vulnerability. Here in the United States, Portland, Oregon is one such city. Expert help has arrived in New Zealand from around the world, including the United States. Today’s Washington Post covered the story of a FEMA employee, in New Zealand to follow up on recovery from the September 3 earthquake, who has extended his stay to help.

Some experts reading this blog might well say, “But we’ve known all this all along! Why must we keep relearning the same lessons over and over again?”

But repetition was how we learned our multiplication tables. We learn what we can practice. We build up what we exercise. And unfortunately, New Zealand is suddenly getting a lot of reps.

We’re told that New Zealand has no national motto, but that they used to have a simple one – one that seems appropriate here. And so, let’s all recommit, together:


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