Quake work steep learning curve

By Andre Hueber

The Christchurch earthquakes created misery, but gave two engineers a career boost, writes Andre Hueber.

The young engineers came up with a plan to repair the Avon river stopbanks. Photo / Geoff Sloan
The young engineers came up with a plan to repair the Avon river stopbanks. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Summer Faulkner, 23, and Luke Cameron, 28, worked together on Project Stopbanks - a frantic and successful attempt to stop the Avon river from flooding.

The experience took them to the Young Water Professionals conference in Hungary, where they shared their discoveries with experts in the field. The duo encountered a keen awareness of the disaster - their story had participants riveted.

Mr Cameron, a geotechnical engineer, had been working in Auckland for engineering, architecture and environmental consulting company GHD when he got the call to go to Christchurch. Ms Faulkner, a graduate water engineer, had been with the firm for only two months.

GHD had been working on an anti-flooding earthquake response after the September 2010 quake and the second larger quake on February 22 2011 saw its plan - Project Stopbanks - sparked into action.

"I was more than happy to contribute," Mr Cameron says.

"Being involved with the country's largest natural disaster was a way to help people. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved with a piece of New Zealand history."

Ms Faulkner describes arriving from Wellington and being taken-aback by the damage to buildings and infrastructure. "It quickly became clear this wasn't going to be a standard engineering project."

Mr Cameron says things were "fairly chaotic" when he showed up five days after the February quake.

"The GHD office had been condemned and we'd been provided with another space ... packed with people trying to sort things out."

The two engineers were tasked with assessing damage to 25km of riverbanks along the River Avon - from Swanns Rd in Richmond to the Avon-Heathcote estuary - some of which had subsided by up to a metre and were at risk of pouring contaminated water on to city streets.

Mr Cameron took Ms Faulkner under his wing: "It was her first real construction project and I was able to assist her."

Their job was to come up with temporary solutions with a long design life before the council developed a long-term plan for the city. At the peak of the project, over 100 construction personnel were involved, including five full-time engineers.

The pair measured the riverbanks in segments, lifted manhole lids to inspect stormwater pipes, assessed liquefaction cracks and came up with fixes. These included renewing broken sections of pipe and installing valves at the end of pipes to stop water entering.

The threat of high tides and the heightened risk that accompanied them meant the clock was ticking. "It was a project which covered lots of kilometres," Mr Cameron says.

Challenges included differences in river bank width and stopbank height, as well as the presence of pipes, power poles and trees.

"There was no one-size-fits-all solution so we came up with a series of building blocks that could be adapted."

The project was completed in two stages. There was the initial response phase where extra emergency stopbanks were needed and the second phase which involved providing greater levels of engineered protection. The first phase was finished in six days and the second phase took four months.

Once the banks received the engineering stamp of approval, Civil Defence assigned contractors Fulton and Hogan to restore slope definition. When the high tides arrived, construction workers were at the ready with diggers and bulldozers, but the thorough work paid off.

Ms Faulkner says she was constantly aware her decisions could have a large impact on residents and the job was stressful, but in terms of career development it was a "steep learning curve."

"We benefited from doing a wide range of engineering work in a small amount of time."

Once their work was over, GHD suggested the pair write a paper about their experience and submit it to organisers of the International Water Association's Young Professional's Conference. They did and were accepted.

They travelled to Budapest for the event in July last year, met with engineering experts from 50 different countries and ended up getting sixth place.

"We spoke about what it's like for a young professional to work in an emergency environment and included suggestions for how to make it easier," Mr Cameron says.

Advice included the importance of having a well-defined structure, having a support network of senior engineers, having a clear project brief and making sure people know their technical limitations.

Mr Cameron says the talk went down well.

"Most other presentations were technical ... Ours was a more practical and pragmatic approach to engineering. It was a real problem people could relate to."

- NZ Herald

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