AT the time of the Newcastle earthquake there was no requirement in the Australian standards code for engineers to consider in design or construction the effects of an earthquake in Newcastle, or across the Hunter region.
That all changed on December 28, 1989.
The engineering community locally and nationally were quickly mobilised to help guide the three phases that follow a natural disaster: rescue, recovery and repair.
The industry association Engineers Australia played a major role in helping the work involved in the recovery to proceed.
Calls for assistance came through the association's Newcastle division officer where Sally Chapman, divisional director at the time, helped put those in need of engineering help to the appropriate people and firms.
Refresher courses were organised for members through the University of Newcastle, with subjects including earthquake design and construction, so that all new buildings in the region would be built to the earthquake "resistant" standards at the time.
Association members with earthquake experience either interstate and overseas - New Zealand being a prime example - were approached to provide mentoring to local engineers facing the tasks ahead.
Not long after the tremors struck on that summer Thursday, Newcastle lord mayor John McNaughton, a surveyor, set a timeline to have the city reopened within eight days. He knew he needed the support of Engineers Australia and its members for this to happen. He saw that the interruption to business, although unavoidable, needed to be kept to a minimum to keep people in work, and to ensure the financial impact on the community was lessened where possible.
Just as importantly, the people of a city and surrounds still in shock after an almost unimagined catastrophe needed assurance that life would go on, and that the city's buildings and infrastructure were safe.
To do this, Engineers Australia helped plan an arrangement with Newcastle council, in which teams of engineers, surveyors and architects would divide into teams - usually of three people - and go physically from door to door throughout the quake-affected areas, in order to map the city block by block.
The results of this survey were set out in a May, 1990 report, the Newcastle Earthquake Study by The Institution of Engineers, Australia, as the organisation was styled at the time.
Each property was assigned a rating on a colour-coded, four-level gradient.
This report, which drew on the strengths of engineers from BHP, the electricity commission, the council, the public works department, the university, CSIRO and various consultancies, surveyed the extent of the damage, examined why some buildings had failed but not others, and gave recommendations as to how best prepare the city's buildings should history repeat itself.
The May report also included the results of the street survey. Green was for "minor damage; blue was "damaged but habitable", amber was "severe damage, possible danger, access required" and red "immediate public danger". The surveys were undertaken over two days, morning and afternoon, and the information gathered was collated by the council. In the CBD especially, this helped the council determine which buildings were still unsafe, and which streets were safe to navigate, helping the city get back to business as quickly as possible.
The 1990 report shows 4973 buildings were inspected: 3504 residential, 1377 commercial and 92 classified as "other". For residential, the numbers were 228 red, 419 amber, 513 blue and 2344 green. On the commercial side, it was 222 red, 255 amber, 227 blue and 673 green.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that commercial buildings tended to be larger than household structures, the red-sticker rate was almost three times as great, at 17 per cent compared with 6.5 per cent.
As the institution's president, Michael Sargent, wrote in the introduction to the report, the survey provided not only immediate benefits, it gathered "valuable evidence of how buildings react under earthquake stress (that) would soon be lost as the bulldozers moved in".
Once the rebuilding began, repairs were required to be done under new design and construction standards, meaning some damaged buildings required strengthening.
The report went on to find "a significant" amount of under-insurance after the quake, but it noted that the level was not out of line with the rest of the country.
Engineers Australia also worked with various local councils to help the community develop earthquake awareness in the event of another serious tremor. Simple measures including fixing tall shelves and wall units in place to stop them from toppling, and practising safety plans and fire drills so as many people as possible were prepared for that unexpected moment.
Big new buildings are designed today in ways that allow the forces generated in an earthquake to flow in and out of the walls without them coming apart. But 30 years on, do we still maintain sufficient safety plans in our businesses, schools, retail centres and hospitals, or have we become complacent?
Helen Link is the general manager of Engineers Australia, Newcastle
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