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New Zealand Civil and Defense Aviation Band Together

Responding to an Earthquake

By John Nicholson

Most of New Zealand was asleep in the early morning of November 14, 2016, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake centered near Kaikoura struck. By daylight, the largest air bridge operation in New Zealand’s history was under way to assess the damage, bring relief, and start the recovery.

The Earthquake’s Impact
According to GNS Science, more than 21 faults were ruptured in that initial shake, possibly a world record for the number of faults rupturing in a single earthquake. Significant aftershocks, many more than 6.0 in magnitude, continued for many months.

The initial shock caused the most damage with two fatalities and 56 injuries. State Highway 1, the main north-south road, and the main railway line were severed by multiple landslides on both sides of Kaikoura. Many roads and bridges throughout the area were cracked. Water treatment, fresh water, telecommunications, and power generation facilities were damaged and stopped operating. Approximately 150 landslide dams were created across multiple South Island catchments.

A local tsunami saw wave run-up on shore as high as 22 feet above sea level in Goose Bay, and a 9-to-13-foot run-up in other areas. Luckily, the earthquake struck at low tide and much of the foreshore was lifted by more than 3 feet, so the impact was not as great. However, the rise in seabed placed significant restrictions on the small harbor.

Kaikoura, with its population of 2,080 (3,740 in the Kaikoura District) and around 1,000 tourists, was cut off, and many small settlements in the area were isolated. The adjacent Hurunui District (population 11,529 ) was also affected. These districts are on the northeastern side of the South Island of New Zealand. Given the severity of the earthquake and the damage, one would expect the numbers of fatalities and injuries to be high. However, because of the small population and the quality of New Zealand’s building standards, the effects were comparatively mild.

The earthquake was felt throughout a good part of New Zealand, with considerable damage in other places, including the capital city of Wellington. However, the Kaikoura and Hurunui districts required the most aerial effort.

The Response
The immediate daylight response came from the air. Christchurch Helicopters landed urban search and rescue teams on behalf of the New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (New Zealand Civil Defence) shortly after 6:00 a.m. in Kaikoura. Other commercial operators were quickly on the scene too. Two defense NHIndustries NH90 helicopters and a Lockheed P-3 Orion surveyed the damage. “It is clear that the major route from Christchurch to Kaikoura is impassable. So are the roads from Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs and the one from Blenheim to Kaikoura,” Air Cdre. Darryn Webb, acting commander of Joint Forces New Zealand said on November 14.

Several helicopter companies quickly had aircraft on the ground in Kaikoura ready to help and do what was required. When the magnitude of the damage became clear, New Zealand Civil Defence recognized that a coordinated air program would be required to bring in essential supplies, evacuate tourists stranded in Kaikoura, and assist local residents who wanted to leave and begin the recovery program. Many different helicopters operating independently could pose a safety hazard, and would not be in Kaikoura’s best interest.

Organizing Relief and Recovery
Kaikoura Aerodrome, about 4.5 miles from Kaikoura, has an asphalt runway that is 2,294 feet by 33 feet and a grass runway that is 2,018 feet by 82 feet. While undamaged, the helicopter option allowed landings in a field near the hospital and the local rugby ground. As the operation got into full swing and an ordered approach was taken, operations focused on the rugby ground. The aerodrome was used later in the week when fixed-wing flights started.

The organization of the relief and recovery reflected work among New Zealand Civil Defence, the New Zealand Defence Force, and a Christchurch Helicopters consortium. They soon became the key players.

Christchurch Helicopters, working collaboratively with Wanaka Helicopters, Tekapo Helicopters, Advanced Flight, and Kaikoura Helicopters, established a base in Kaikoura. Christchurch Helicopters supervised the movement of helicopters for New Zealand Civil Defence, which included New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue, New Zealand Police, the Canterbury District Health Board, Christchurch City Council, the Environment Canterbury Regional Council, and other agencies and companies involved in providing relief and starting the recovery.

The helicopter companies transferred some of their resources to the Christchurch Helicopters base in Christchurch so that all the aircraft could be maintained and operated for as long as was needed. To further improve the efficiency of the operation, Christchurch Helicopters based one of its staff in the New Zealand Civil Defence office in Christchurch. This enhanced coordination of helicopter missions and ensured tasks requested of the helicopters were practical and achievable.

As a result of the close relationship with New Zealand Civil Defence, logistics planners were able to work late into each night to task the helicopters for the following day. Even the student pilots at Christchurch Helicopters pitched in to ensure that aircraft were always clean and tidy.

Cooperation between the helicopter companies was also helped by the relationships and rapport between them. Wanaka Helicopters and Christchurch Helicopters both train new helicopter pilots. As it happened, pilots trained by both companies were flying for Tekapo Helicopters, Advanced Flight, and Kaikoura Helicopters. Both training companies are separately working on an initiative to further improve the quality of training delivered to prospective pilots.

Those initial helicopter flights brought in much-needed supplies of food and water, as well as generators to get power up and running to pump fuel, run dairy platforms, and other essential services.

They also brought in vital chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients in Kaikoura and other pharmaceuticals. Christchurch Helicopters provided humanitarian missions for no payment. One such mission was to fly a plumber to an isolated farmhouse where a young mother, stranded with her baby, had no water or sewage supply.

The Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) played an important role in providing relief and then in the recovery. RNZAF provided four NHIndustries NH90s, two AugustaWestland A109s, and two Sikorsky S-70B Seahawks. It also accessed helicopters from the Australian, Canadian, and U.S. air forces, which were on exercises near New Zealand at the time of the earthquake.

The relief and evacuation process ramped up very quickly, showing what could be done with a coordinated defense-civilian approach. The day after the earthquake, the four NH90 helicopters delivered 1.3 tons of water, 660 pounds of food, and jerrycans of diesel, in addition to picking up 200 evacuees. By Wednesday, New Zealand naval ships had arrived to complement the helicopter effort, and a truck convoy got through on Friday.

The ability to quickly complement the air effort with sea and land support from the navy and army meant that significant progress was possible very quickly. The ships and trucks collectively delivered 283 tons of necessary supplies and repair equipment, compared with the 25 tons the RNZAF delivered through its helicopters.

Supporting the People
Where to take evacuees was not really an issue. The RNZAF and civilian helicopter operators flew passengers to Woodend, 16 miles north of Christchurch. Many were flown back to the Christchurch Helicopters base at Christchurch Airport. Support services then took over.

“We managed to move a lot of people very, very quickly. On Tuesday, we shifted about 300 people,” says Pete Spencer-Bower, Wanaka Helicopters managing director, speaking about the service provided by the Christchurch Helicopters’ consortium.

Even the Chinese government stepped in to help its citizens. In a little more than 24 hours after the earthquake, 125 stranded Chinese tourists were evacuated from Kaikoura. The consortium of helicopters from Christchurch Helicopters flew many trips during Monday and Tuesday to achieve this task.

Many stranded tourists spoke of the generosity of locals before they were evacuated and the treatment they received when flown to safety. They were willingly accommodated on maraes (communal place for Maori, the native population of New Zealand), in churches, in halls, and in local homes undamaged by the earthquake. The Takahanga Marae, for example, supplied 1.5 tons of crayfish to stranded tourists for breakfast one day.

Lessons Learned
One valuable lesson was how necessary an immediate response to assess the damage and people’s needs was. This got under way at daylight on the first day after the earthquake. “Urgent short-term needs assessments [were] made and they [were] being catered to through those helicopter drops,” says David Coetzee, national controller, New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

In an emergency, people are generally willing to help, provided they are given clear direction as to what is required. “We’re here to offer any kind of support we can,” says Cmdr. Tim LaBenz of the USS Sampson, which provided two MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. “We’re proud to be part of a broader effort to bring some relief and help those affected by tragedy.”

Coordination of effort is critically important. Basing a Christchurch Helicopters’ employee in Civil Defence improved communication and ensured helicopters were properly utilized in the first days after the earthquake. Good coordination between defense and civilian resources is essential.

“We were really honored to be asked to help and get involved in real-world operations to help the people,” says Lt. Ariel Baltis, captain of a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion.

John Nicholson joined industry association Aviation New Zealand in February 2008 and was appointed chief executive in April 2016. Before that, he had several international business development roles at the senior management level with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and predecessor organizations in Australia, Britain, and Singapore.

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