Kristen MacAskill describes how an earthquake in her hometown served to influence her career as an engineer.

Houses had tilted on their foundations and the roads were rough and potholed from liquefaction damage

Kristen MacAskill

At 2.30am I sit with my laptop feeling helpless as I watch video footage of a dust cloud rising around the crumbling cathedral in the city square. An earthquake has hit my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, and all I can do is scan the internet for snippets of information. Mild panic rises in my stomach, I have had no news of my family.

I had been woken by a text from a friend but there were no other messages, emails or missed calls. Finally I reach my mum on her mobile phone as she emerges from a central city building. She had spent three hours stuck on the tenth floor with no power, an incessant fire alarm and no safe way out. Firemen arrived to help her and stranded colleagues negotiate the dark internal stairwells that had pulled away from the walls, with water pouring from broken water pipes above.

We speak only briefly to keep the airways free for others, but I at least learn that my immediate family are okay. After the boost of adrenaline, I can’t sleep. A few hours later, feeling a little lost, I set off for rowing training as life around me in Cambridge surreally continues as normal.

That was 2011 and at the time I was completing an MPhil degree in the Engineering Department. Following my degree, I returned to New Zealand to work on the reconstruction of Christchurch, feeling motivated that as an engineer I could contribute towards rebuilding the city.

I experienced the aftershocks (which numbered in the thousands) and became adept at estimating the epicentre through the sound and feel of the shaking. Life was fairly normal living on the western side of the city where there was minimal damage. However, I worked in badly damaged areas in the east, where houses had tilted on their foundations and the roads were rough and potholed from liquefaction damage.

Partway through the year I was offered funding for a PhD back in Cambridge. I saw an opportunity to research the reconstruction as it progressed and to capture insights as to why and how decisions were made. I believed I could continue to make a meaningful contribution, albeit shifting to the role of observer rather than as a direct participant in the recovery process.

My research involved returning to Christchurch for fieldwork each year, interviewing engineers, executives, political leaders and other professionals involved in planning and implementing the reconstruction.

The initial shift from practitioner to researcher was a personal challenge. I felt I had to prove my relevance to the rebuild effort to those dealing with the stresses and challenges of the process every day. However, my fears gradually dissipated – I was welcomed back and people were happy to spend time with me to reflect on their experiences. Sometimes it was also a chance to vent their frustrations.

I had initially considered conducting multiple case studies around the world, but soon realised the value of a longer-term study in Christchurch to capture changes over time. Also, as a PhD student with limited time and budget, it made sense to work in a region where I had a good understanding of the politics and the culture and a connection to people through shared experience.

Securing interviews with critical decision makers involved planning (sometimes years in the process) and a little luck. During field visits I had an allocated desk at one of the major recovery organisations and attended community and industry events. This meant I could immerse myself in recovery discussions and I had opportunities to join meetings simply because I was in the office at the right time.

On my final visit I met with the central government minister in charge of the recovery. We discussed major decisions made by the government in response to the earthquakes. This included the establishment of new legislation, the creation of new organisations to lead the recovery and the red zoning of residential land, where approximately 8,000 residential properties now sit empty as their future is debated.

One of the many challenges of the recovery was the need to create new organisations to lead the process and to interpret ambiguous policy statements regarding funding commitments. Although there were long processes of negotiation (establishing clear funding arrangements, for example, took years), a pre-defined, prescriptive approach could have been equally unsatisfactory.

Five years into the recovery, there is a lingering question over how to be better prepared in the future. There is a need to create policies that provide both appropriate clear guidance and flexibility to respond to specific circumstances. This remains the subject of much debate in New Zealand. Despite the country’s relatively advanced system for emergency management, it was caught off-guard by a large earthquake in Christchurch.

My research has shown that while post-disaster reconstruction may be considered an opportunity to rebuild more resilient infrastructure, many potential opportunities may be excluded. Contributing factors include financial constraints, limits in scope of organisations involved and the inherent challenge of introducing change to communities, particularly in the time-constrained context of recovery.

With a better understanding of such factors, we can gain better insight into the effectiveness of different decisions and subsequent pathways for recovery. Unfortunately, with natural disasters like earthquakes, there is no prevention; there is only preparation for the next time disaster strikes.

Kristen was primarily funded through a Cambridge International Scholarship from the Cambridge Trusts. She also received small grants from the Earthquake Commission in New Zealand, the Department of Engineering, Corpus Christi College and the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Her PhD was supervised by Professor Peter Guthrie.

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