Great reconstruction of mind, body, spirit and environment

Canterbury recovery continues apace 15 months after Christchurch quake. Rachel Williams writes

May 17, 2012

Rod Carr was having lunch with a former prime minister of New Zealand and a group of US congressmen at the University of Canterbury Staff Club when an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 hit Christchurch.

"We pretty much dived under a table as the windows began to break," the vice-chancellor remembers.

When they crawled out minutes later, the extent of the damage was unclear. By 5pm, the university was satisfied that there had been no serious injuries or fatalities on site. It was spared building collapses, too, which were responsible for many of the 185 deaths in Christchurch's central business district and eastern suburbs.

But there were plenty of other problems. The quake, which hit on 22 February 2011, left 30,000 sq m of the university's 260,000 sq m built environment out of bounds - including 10 lecture theatres, the library and the Students' Association building.

Two students and two others who had finished their studies and were due to graduate in April were killed in the city centre. Another two people with teaching associations with Canterbury and the spouse of one staff member also died.

Other university employees suffered distress as their homes, friends and families were affected.

Canterbury had been shut for two weeks in September 2010 after a quake with a magnitude of 7.1 hit the region, but had managed to finish the academic year on track. However, the February 2011 quake, says Carr, was a "game changer".

The university moved swiftly. It reopened after three weeks, with 14 marquee tents erected to provide teaching space. Work then started on "teaching villages": by the July, 15,000 sq m of single-storey wooden structures - also providing faculty offices - were up and running, recovering half the university's lost space.

With the library still unsafe - and half a million books to be reshelved - major education publishing houses helped out by temporarily allowing access to their online resources for free. Much greater use was made of Canterbury's online learning system: today it remains twice as well used as before the quake. But the senior management team knew it had to think about more than the physical environment.

"You start thinking it's about the buildings, but it's not," says Carr. "It's about the student body. We always knew it would be important to maintain student engagement or we'd get substantial student flight."

The quake struck on the second day of teaching in the new academic year, making freshers particularly susceptible to being scared off.

With communication a priority, social media became a key tool, and the university set up "UC" accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

"The purpose was to disseminate information, but the real impact was that students were able to feel connected," says Ekant Veer, senior lecturer in marketing at Canterbury, who is researching post-quake online expression.

"It also allowed them to vent their frustrations... the more social aspects of social media meant that students were able to feel their voices were being heard and their thoughts valued. Without it, many of them may well have struggled far more."

Research renewal

Veer is not the only member of Canterbury's academic staff to conduct research inspired by the quakes. The civil and natural resources engineering and geological sciences departments were involved from day one, but it soon became clear that researchers in disciplines from business management to public health were taking part, too.

Today there is an earthquake research coordinator keeping track of more than 170 projects.

Steve Weaver, assistant vice-chancellor for research, reckons the projects make up about 10 to 15 per cent of the university's total research portfolio.

"For many disciplines, especially those in the social sciences and education, Christchurch has become a laboratory for research," he says. "Most staff have been motivated to contribute to the recovery and renewal of the city and community in which they live. The earthquakes have provided the university the opportunity to demonstrate its relevance to the community and to New Zealand nationally."

The Resilient Organisations research programme, a collaboration between New Zealand's academy and industry, published a report on the September 2010 quake - Shaken but not Stirred - which contains a raft of detailed, practical recommendations for universities hit by quakes and other emergencies, based on Canterbury's experience.

A sequel, covering events after the February 2011 quake, is due to be published at the end of the month.

Simon Kemp, professor of psychology at Canterbury, looked at academic performance after the quakes, finding that students maintained grade levels despite higher stress, anxiety and depression levels.

This means the quakes must have had some positive effects, he says.

One theory is that students simply had fewer distractions: fewer bars to visit and fewer part-time jobs to do. Another hypothesis is that some were inspired to work harder.

Students also found a new role. After the September quake, Sam Johnson, a law and political sciences student at the university, set up a Facebook group calling for volunteers to help with the laborious task of digging out liquefaction - large volumes of sludgy silt and sand that rose up through the ground because of subterranean water pressures. Within two weeks, 2,500 students were out on the streets wielding shovels and wheelbarrows.

When the February quake hit, the "Student Volunteer Army" was ready to mobilise once more: some 9,000 volunteers carried out 75,000 hours of work with contractors and others to clear more than 360,000 tonnes of liquefaction.

For his efforts, Johnson was named Young New Zealander of the Year.

Threats and opportunities

Challenges remain at Canterbury. Student flight was kept relatively low - 95 per cent of those enrolled at the time of the February quake were still there two months later - but first-year applications from international students were down 20 per cent this year.

Although a doubling in the conversion rate meant that enrolments were actually higher than planned, overseas numbers across all years fell from 1,200 to 800. (Applications from first-year domestic students decreased by 18 per cent, although enrolments declined by less than 5 per cent.)

The fall in international student numbers means a projected NZ$10 million (£5 million) decline in income compared with 2010. Meanwhile, the university's insurance premiums have risen from NZ$1 million to NZ$6.2 million.

The university is boosting its scholarships for students while investing in new venues to try to ensure that a reduced social experience does not deter applicants. But Canterbury still faces a NZ$11 million deficit next year, and Carr says that the quakes will end up costing the institution hundreds of millions of dollars - not all of it recoverable through insurance.

Thousands of aftershocks - including one in June 2011 that shut the university for a week - do not help on a practical level.

Yet there have been successes, too. The institution's promise to deliver a full academic year in 2011-12 was met, and while the lecture theatres and other buildings remain out of use, Carr says Canterbury is "managing fine" thanks to new teaching spaces and a move to centrally planned timetabling and room allocation.

He also thinks the Student Volunteer Army's work has probably secured students the public's support for a generation.

Importantly, regeneration brings opportunities for reflection and improvement.

"It's a matter of saying: as we put some things back together, maybe we should take the opportunity to put them back together better," says Carr. "Maybe we don't need as many square metres of infrastructure as we had. Better configured space might be the outcome.

"If the only ambition is to get to where we were in 2010 by 2015, we've lost five years. That may be a heroic feat, but we've got to have an ambition to get back to where we were and better."

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