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Journal cover: International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment

International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment

ISSN: 1759-5908

Online from: 2010

Subject Area: Built Environment

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The contrasting fortunes of Christchurch and Port-au-Prince


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Article citation: Richard Haigh, Dilanthi Amaratunga, (2011) "The contrasting fortunes of Christchurch and Port-au-Prince", International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, Vol. 2 Iss: 1, pp. -


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Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, Volume 2, Issue 1

On first reading, the earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand in September 2010 was a mirror image of the one that ravaged Haiti earlier in the same year. Each was a powerful magnitude 7.0 quake, and each occurred on a strike-slip fault near a major population centre. The similarities end there.

Reports out of Christchurch have been almost incredible: though the city suffered extensive damage – initial assessments suggested it could cost at least 2 billion New Zealand dollars to repair – not a single death to its 386,000 population has been definitively linked to the earthquake. By contrast, the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince was devastated, and a quarter of a million people were killed. It is difficult to imagine a more divergent level of human suffering.

Recent reports in the media highlight the immense distress that remains in Haiti, some ten month after the earthquake struck. The outbreak of cholera is likely a result of the poor hygiene and unsanitary living conditions after the devastating January earthquake. This has occurred despite the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicting in March that cholera should not be a problem. This terrible outcome is a suitable reminder of the need for timely reconstruction of the built environment after a disaster, with hygiene infrastructure a priority.

But, why has this extreme contrast in outcomes occurred? It can be partly attributed to good fortune. A closer look at the two earthquakes reveals an important geological difference. The epicentre of the Haiti quake was just 16 miles from downtown Port-au-Prince, while in Christchurch the tremor struck more than 30 miles away. Strong ground motion dies out with distance and therefore the worst of the seismic energy had probably dissipated by the time it reached the heart of Christchurch. New Zealanders were also lucky because most were at home, asleep when the quake hit at 4:35 a.m. local time, while Haitians were struck at 16:53 local time.

The second contributory factor is mitigation. Although the timing of the earthquake is beyond control, it is not accidental that Christchurch residents were asleep in houses built up to the country’s stringent building codes. New Zealanders are among the world leaders in earthquake engineering and have money to spend on technology. Most people were safely shielded in homes of braced timber-framing construction that were able to flex under the strain, but remained in an upright position. It is notable that older buildings in downtown Christchurch were the most badly damaged. Strict building codes were developed and enforced after previous earthquakes. The country lies on a highly charged seismic fault and experiences over 14,000 earthquakes a year, although only a few have a magnitude in excess of 5.0.

Haiti does not have strict building construction standards or enforced building codes. Initial impressions of the devastation in Haiti suggest that, while its major city, Port-au-Prince, has a significant proportion of the type of hand-built, ad hoc buildings one might assume would be most vulnerable to an earthquake – and as vulnerable as those informal buildings were – a number of larger buildings, either not built to adequate standards, or else built to standards that did not account for the experienced seismic event, appear to have been similarly deadly. Of course, economic standing has a lot to do with it; New Zealand is far better off than chronically impoverished Haiti, re-emphasising the strong link between poverty and hazard vulnerability. The devastating shortfall of building quality in Haiti has complex and far-reaching roots. But, Christchurch’s success story must not be used to develop a culture of complacency in more affluent regions. Good building codes are an important dimension of a well-regulated, safe, and sustainable built environment, and good engineering is required for buildings to survive strong ground motion. While it is disconcerting that Haiti did not have established national building standards, it also seems timely to recall that when Hurricane Katrina swept across parts of the USA, some of the worst destruction has been attributed inadequate building codes and poor decisions by qualified building professionals.

It is therefore pleasing that the opening issue of Volume 2 should include contributions from research linked to an on-going initiative for safer school construction, a subject of global relevance. Guidance notes for safer school construction were developed in response to the increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme climatic events, and a growing number of the world’s school-going children increasingly being exposed to earthquakes, wildfires, floods, cyclones, landslides and other natural hazards. The Editors are grateful to Allison Anderson, former Director of the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Secretariat, and the rest of her team, for encouraging these contributions to the journal.

Developed in a widely consultative manner under the leadership of the INEE and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery at the World Bank, and in partnership with the Coalition for Global School Safety and Disaster Prevention Education, the IASC Education Cluster and the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, Safer School Construction Guidance Notes were developed to provide a framework of guiding principles and general steps to develop a context-specific plan to address a critical gap to reaching the Education for All and Millennium Development Goals through the disaster resilient construction and retrofitting of school buildings. The guidance notes briefly address the need and rationale for safer school buildings; recommend a series of suggested steps that highlight key points that should be considered when planning a safer school construction and/or retrofitting initiative; and identify basic design principles and requirements a school building must meet to provide a greater level of protection. Finally, the Guidance Notes provide a list of key resources for more detailed, technical and context-specific information. More information about the initiative and a copy of the guidance notes can be downloaded from: www.ineesite.org/index.php/post/safer_school_construction_initiative/.

The first paper linked to this initiative reports on research to develop a guideline that relies on state-of-the-art evaluation and retrofit methods to assist the local engineers. In their article entitled “Damage mitigation for school buildings in seismically vulnerable regions”, H. Kit Miyamoto, Amir S.J. Gilani, and Akira Wada describe how it is often necessary to examine a group of buildings or all structures in a locality and develop a comprehensive risk management plan for the vulnerable buildings. They detail an evaluation and implementation technique that can be utilised by governments to prevent further damage to key infrastructure and save millions of lives and suggest that innovative retrofits can be used to provide enhanced performance and provide seismic resiliency for cluster of school buildings.

In the second paper, Hirano et al. share the experience of those directly involved in drafting the new national school infrastructure standards and guidelines for Rwanda. The focus of the work in Rwanda was practical, yet this article reports fundamental data from the field which is analysed within wider contexts. The process that was followed in Rwanda, the successes, and the challenges to overcome are reported from the field experience of those involved in the process. Although the authors acknowledge that the process followed was fairly standard for development work, they highlight the importance of the results, especially with regards to inclusiveness, in a post-political violence context.

The three other papers in the issue address very different aspects of resilience. In “Accessing emergency rest centres in UK – lessons learnt”, Joe Kipling, Rita Newton, and Marcus Ormerod examine access for disabled people to emergency rest centres (ERC) provision in the UK. ERCs are premises used for the temporary accommodation of evacuees during an emergency situation. They present the results of three case studies on ERCs that were established in different local authority areas in the UK during a flooding event. The studies were used to determine the level of accessibility and inclusion of disabled people at these centres.

The fourth paper emphasises the journal’s desire to encourage a range of disciplinary perspectives on disaster resilience. In this context, Korstanje explores the connection between the coverage of mass-media and press of swine flu in Buenos Aires, and how the principle of resilience in this conjuncture works. This ethnographic study was carried out in Buenos Aires during April to June of 2009, combining informal with formal interviews and analysis of contents extracted of press coverage. The results of the study suggest that fear becomes an efficient instrument to keep the status quo following a disaster.

In the final research article, Fayazi explores the use of the core housing method as a means of providing shelter after disasters. The method is introduced as a means of supplying a minimum safe residential space against future disasters using the limited resources and time available at the time, but thereby providing a base from which the inhabitants will be able to extend their core house in the future. Fayaki’s study, which focuses on village houses that were constructed using the core housing method after the 1990 Manjil earthquake in Iran, evaluates the housing 19 years after the original core units were built. Fayaki concludes that despite great variation on core unit extension done by habitants, these extension are based on a special logic which is itself based on the inhabitants’ needs of residential spaces and habitance patterns.

This issue concludes with a review by Korstanje on the contributions of Thomas Hobbes to the study of the recovery process, important news from Mulligan and Nadarajah about the recent launch of a set of reports about the lessons from Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster still to be learnt, and finally news of an International Conference of Building Resilience that will be held in Sri Lanka during 2011.

Richard Haigh, Dilanthi Amaratunga



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