Shaking It Off

A scene of the destructive aftermath of the deadly 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Photograph by CC Caacrinolaas by-NC-ND-2.5

"You know you're from Christchurch when you sleep in one suburb, shower in another, collect water from another, and go to the toilet where you can." University of Canterbury genetics professor Jack Heinemann, PhD '89, used these words to describe his life after a deadly earthquake jolted the city on February 22, 2011—the second major quake to unnerve 375,000 residents in less than six months.

Seismologists estimate the 6.3 magnitude quake, with its shallow depth and epicenter just six miles from the Christchurch city center, shook the ground four times faster than the 9.0 quake in the Pacific Ocean that would trigger a devastating tsunami in Japan a few weeks later. In New Zealand, 185 people died; those suffering injuries numbered 6,500. One hundred thousand homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed, including the city's 130-year-old neogothic cathedral. Two hundred miles of sewage pipes and 100 miles of water mains were severed. Liquefaction, the process of water-saturated sediment percolating to the Earth's surface, forced 650,000 tons of stinking, sticky quicksand to bubble out of the ground.

Pacific Northwest residents are likely to someday face similar devastation from an earthquake emanating from the Cascadia fault line running roughly 50 miles off the coastline from southern Canada to northern California. A major quake and tsunami resulted from slippage of this fault in 1700; seismologists say it is due for another one at any time. According to studies published by the U.S. Geological Survey, there's a 40 percent chance that a major quake will hit the southern Oregon Coast within the next 50 years. The predicted magnitude is 8.0 or above.

The first major earthquake to hit Christchurch since 1870 occurred on September 4, 2010. It struck at 4:35 a.m. Heinemann and his wife, Juliet Thorpe, were asleep. "There was a disconcerting amount of ground shaking," he says. "There was no water. There was no power. It was winter—cold!" Heinemann and Thorpe got out of the house, then sat in their car listening to the news on the radio: significant, citywide damage but no fatalities. Hours later, a crystal-clear day dawned. The couple's home emerged damaged, but livable.

Seven miles away at Canterbury University, however, Heinemann's laboratory lay in shambles. His research group investigates proteins and biochemical pathways using E. coli bacteria. The researchers had just moved into a brand-new, "earthquake-proof" building. Still, "The quake did 10 years worth of settling in 30 seconds," Heinemann says. Beakers and bottles of toxic chemicals crashed to the floor. Power surges destroyed freezers, thawing and ruining hundreds of plates of mutated bacteria. By the time HAZMAT teams cleaned up the mess and Heinemann reestablished his lab, his research had fallen months behind schedule—eons for researchers working with evolving bacteria.

By February, life was inching back toward normality—then the second, larger quake struck. Heinemann was away from the lab and in his office when the inflatable cow ornaments hanging from his ceiling began swaying during the lunch hour on the second day of the new semester. He crouched under his desk as the shaking continued and wondered if it would ever stop. He phoned his wife, who was safe at work at the Christchurch Hospital, then fled. As he headed toward his designated evacuation point—the rugby fields across the road from campus—aftershocks rippled the grass and shook parked cars. He could only guess how badly the damage to his lab had been. Of more pressing concern, he needed to find out what was happening at home.

He left campus and headed in that direction, navigating his way around liquefaction, fractured roads, and traffic jams. As he drew closer, he could see that his recently renovated hillside house was gone. "All of the walls fell," he says. "Three stories of concrete blocks fell. The solid foundation wall was broken, and the roof opened like a clam." Heinemann went into triage mode. He wrenched open the twisted garage door and cleared a path around his pick-up truck and his "mobile disaster relief platform," or pop-up trailer. He loaded them with whatever he could find: clothes, a few pots and pans, the cats.

The couple set up camp in their yard. On occasion they'd drive the 35 miles to Thorpe's aunt's house to fill water bottles and to shower. Their trips were limited by road damage and the amount of gasoline they could put in their car—no one could buy more than 2.5 gallons at a time. Basic amenities they'd taken for granted were gone; improvisation was the order of the day. "We had nice, tall buckets left over from the renovation that made great toilets," he says. "When the hardware stores finally opened, I bought very expensive toilet seats that sit on top of the buckets. This was heaven." Their quake-frayed nerves were jolted again when, weeks later, the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami struck. "We watched what was happening, and we wanted to throw up," he says. Christchurch's inconveniences didn't seem so bad after all.

In mid-March Christchurch was still looking like a war zone with many of its streets completely impassable. The university, too, was still a mess—lecture theaters were closed, the library was dealing with half a million books strewn across its floors—but administrators decided that classes should resume. More improvisation was required. Heinemann recorded his lectures at home and posted them online. He held weekly review sessions in tents that fluttered in the wind. HAZMAT crews kept him out of his shattered lab until May, then allowed him back in to begin the rebuilding process once again.

Campus-wide financial crises followed. After wrecking teams razed a science lecture theater and an engineering building, insurance premiums skyrocketed. Undergraduate enrollment, which neared 19,000 students before the earthquakes, fell by thousands, causing a $17 million-per-year drop in revenue. The university is now eating up its cash reserves at an estimated rate of $85,000 per day. Heinemann expects more than 150 jobs will have to be cut. "Everyone is worried. No one can sit back and say, 'I'm safe.'"

Since the September quake, 10,000 aftershocks have rocked—and continue to rock—Christchurch. Before the earthquake it had a population similar to Eugene and Springfield, but 11,000 people have left permanently. They've lost homes, jobs, loved ones. Heinemann and Thorpe decided to stay, even after the June 6.4 magnitude and December 6.0 magnitude aftershocks sent S-waves through their newly purchased home.

For all the distress he's endured, Heinemann remains surprisingly buoyant. "Some of the first people to contact me from overseas were UO colleagues Pete von Hippel, Eric Selker, and George Sprague," he says. "I'm not in regular contact with them, so it was heartwarming and much appreciated."

Sprague, a retired UO biology professor, says Heinemann was one of his more memorable students. "He brought his own imaginative, even outrageous ideas of what to work on. To his credit, his ideas came to fruition and were published in Nature. I was naturally deeply concerned about his welfare."

Surviving Christchurch's earthquakes has given Heinemann a new perspective on research progress, career success, losing his home while others lost their lives, and the comfort of distant friendships.

"I learned a lot about being resilient psychologically," he says. "I've never had a bigger challenge." Ever the scientist and ever the optimist, he adds, "And statistically, not many people survive two national disasters, so why leave now?"

—By Michele Taylor '10, MS '03