Kaikoura's recovery and lessons from Christchurch

Kaikoura's recovery and lessons from Christchurch

Disaster recovery is not just about rebuilding roads and infrastructure. It’s all about the people and their community. Roads and infrastructure serve the needs and requirements of the community, so their needs must be carefully considered before simply rebuilding whatever was damaged or destroyed.

Recovery from the Kaikoura earthquakes should be an improvement on what we did in Canterbury, not just a repeat of the same. There will be no lessons learned from Christchurch’s recovery, or from other disaster recoveries, if we don’t ensure our focus is on the required outcomes for affected communities.

I know from experience that successful disaster recovery requires flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to create the most appropriate, fit-for-purpose solutions. The reality is that anything can be rebuilt with enough time and money. However, it’s more important to ask if we should. Perhaps there are better options for meeting the needs of the community than simply rebuilding back to the way things were? Thinking outside the box, challenging conventional thought, and being flexible, can sometimes lead to better outcomes for everyone.

The primary problem for SH1 into Kaikoura has been the massive rockfalls blocking this main route. Seabed rise within the harbour has also restricted access from that location. It’s the rocks still up in the hills that will be the problem during future major earthquake events. It’s highly likely that we’ll experience similar damage in the Hurunui to Marlborough region. If so, is the most appropriate solution to rebuild exactly the same thing, and incur similar costs onto future generations? In addition, should the harbour be kept in exactly the same location or should it be moved to a more resilient site?

There are three overarching needs to consider for the region: Tourism, freight, and primary industry. Each of these is significant for the local and national community, and ideally we should consider the optimal outcomes for all. There are many secondary considerations for supporting the community, which can vary in priority from one place to another.

Could Kaikoura actually benefit from becoming a destination in itself, like Milford Sound or Aoraki Mount Cook Village? Investment in a robust primary access from the south, with a resilient alternative via the Inland Road, could ensure minimal disruption after future earthquake events. While direct access from the north may be nice, and certainly provides a picturesque drive, I don’t believe it’s essential for the success of Kaikoura.

KiwiRail and various ports have quickly made good use of the under-utilised coastal shipping options for moving freight. With resilient wharf structures, coastal shipping can effectively move freight, and people, wherever needed. One benefit of so many New Zealand towns near the coast is that the New Zealand Navy, together with other ships, can quickly arrive nearby to render aid and deliver supplies. While the loss of rail line access from Picton to Christchurch is inconvenient, it hasn’t stopped freight from arriving into Lyttleton for distribution around the regions.

Primary industries feature many hard-working and capable people who have experience coping with periodic adversity. However, major changes in the land-form or inability to drive to market, could have a far greater impact than normal. Innovative and transformation changes may be warranted on a location-specific basis.

I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t be rebuilding SH1, however, rebuilding what we’ve lost is generally a popular sentiment that isn’t always in our own best interest. Resilient infrastructure is where a future event disrupts the least amount of the network for the least amount of time, thus inconveniencing the least amount of people.

Alliances and Local Resources
In disaster recovery, it’s common that the big companies tend to swoop in and do everything on the basis of having the resources and experience with large projects. Smaller local companies can be overlooked or marginalised in this process, which is not helpful to the local economy.

While we know the large companies have the capabilities and capacity to do large programmes of work, we should ensure that the needs of the local businesses are also considered. One year of work for one major national company might also provide seven years of work for seven local companies. While certain matters should be addressed as quickly as possible, there are many lower priority projects that can be addressed over time.

In Christchurch, the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) was required to subcontract 40% of their work to local Christchurch companies, and I understand SCIRT actually subcontracted much more in support of local businesses. The Christchurch City Council is also looking to embrace some of the positive learnings from the SCIRT Alliance into a new Hybrid Delivery Model for the three waters capital works programme (water, wastewater and stormwater projects).

While SCIRT has achieved many great things, it is unclear if we have truly learned from those things that didn’t go so well, such as more consistency in direction from the funder(s).

Funding a Successful Recovery
It’s common in disaster recovery for big budgetary dollar figures to be set early in the process, and Kaikoura has been no exception. However, in my experience these funding levels need to be reviewed regularly as more information becomes available. There is always unseen damage below ground that we won’t find out about until later in the recovery, and there is always additional cost to address these discoveries.

This happened in Christchurch and Iraq and in both cases the level of the infrastructure rebuild was adjusted down as time progressed, with funding constraints a fixed limit. I’m not advocating that funding limits are exceeded, but rather that the uncertainty of early estimates are recognised and available funding is adjusted in line with new information about the condition and capacity of both the local infrastructure and the local community to support themselves.

For Kaikoura, reserve funding is essential for the unexpected things that will be discovered during the recovery. I suspect that the damage will be worse than it appears - simply because we can’t see all the damage below the surface. The Government’s $2 billion investment may be need to be adjusted, up or down, once we get more information. Let’s not fixate on the $2 billion number that has been estimated - almost before the search and rescue teams disbanded. We may discover that we only need $1.5 billion, or perhaps $2.5 billion.

Spending large amounts of disaster funding wisely is not as easy as it sounds. Especially with limited information in a dynamic environment of damage assessment and endless prioritisation of a growing list of temporary and/or permanent works that need to be designed and/or constructed. While known colleagues can be a great source of immediate reassurance, it really is essential to identify and utilise those resources who have done this type of thing several times before. The art of continuous improvement is how we can both avoid the mistakes of the past - and replicate its successes, for the benefit of all affected communities within the Hurunui, Kaikoura and Marlborough Districts.


This thought leadership article by Warren Ladbrook, a civil and infrastructure services manager in our Christchurch office, is intended to provide you with insights and relevant information on Kaikoura's disaster recovery. Our thought leadership articles on topical and specialist issues are designed to present the key points in an easy to digest and interesting manner.

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