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UC project could help save lives in times of disaster

UC research project could help save lives in times of disaster

August 27, 2012

A University of Canterbury research project could save lives in times of disaster and should significantly increase the resilience and disaster-handling capabilities of lifeline organisations in times of tragedy.

The UC research will reduce costs, and bring greater security of infrastructure services, with significantly improved recovery and restoration for New Zealand communities in the event of disasters.

Researchers Dr Bernard Walker and Associate Professor Venkataraman Nilakant will conduct in-depth case studies of selected lifeline organisations in Christchurch.

The Christchurch earthquakes damaged 124km of water mains, 50,000 roads, 300km of sewer pipes, and 205 major power cables. The cost of rebuilding the damaged infrastructure in Christchurch was estimated around $2 billion.

The scale of damage would have been many times greater had the events occurred in either Auckland or Wellington. The devastation caused by the second-deadliest natural disaster in New Zealand was unprecedented and required a new level of major emergency response.

``Improving the resilience of infrastructure organisations has major implications for New Zealand. Our earlier research in Christchurch indicates that improved organisational resilience resulted in faster response times and more rapid restoration of services,’’ Dr Walker said today.

One organisation they surveyed had estimated that, following improvements made after September 2010, it saved around an additional 30 lives in the February 2011 earthquake.

The UC researchers will collect data by interviewing managers and staff and also gather information through on-line surveys of staff and from internal reports and documents. The data will be analysed to identify best practices that contribute to organisational resilience.

Utility services such as electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, waste water & storm water and transportation networks such as road, rail, airports and ports constitute the lifelines of a community.

``Lifelines are crucial for the wellbeing and the quality of life of a community. Behind each lifeline is an organisation charged with the task of providing the service. We take their presence for granted, only noticing them when they fail to deliver the service,’’ Dr Walker said.

``We expect these lifelines to continue to function even in the face of a major disaster as our quality of life will be severely diminished in the absence of the services that they provide.

``In times of disaster lifeline organisation work together with the Civil Defence to handle the damage following a disaster and to reduce the time taken to return to the usual service levels after such a disaster. The ability of a lifeline organisation to survive a disaster and bounce back quickly is called organisational resilience.’’

The project will see how organisations can boost their resilience in normal times so that they can survive and effectively cope with major disasters such as the devastating earthquakes in Christchurch.

They will also study how lifelines in Christchurch responded to and recovered from the fatal February 22 earthquake last year.

Past research on lifelines has mainly looked at technical and engineering issues associated with disasters. Their research, however, addresses the equally critical aspects of organisation and management.

These organisational and management aspects will play a vital role in future disasters, determining the speed and effectiveness of both initial emergency responses, and also the longer recovery and restoration, Associate Professor Nilakant said.

``Within the next five years, we aim to increase the resilience of New Zealand infrastructure organisations, increasing their disaster-handling capability and enabling them to produce more prompt, effective and sustainable recovery processes,’’ he said.

The project received government funding of $540,000 last week for a three-year study.


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