Earthquake hits New Zealand

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Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. New Zealand's second biggest city, Christchurch, has suffered its second earthquake in the past five months. The first one hit back in September. That was in the middle of the night. Nobody was killed. Yesterdays quake struck in the middle of the day when the streets were busy. At least 32 people have been confirmed dead so far and dozens more are feared trapped under collapsed buildings. Peter Mitchell is Christchurch city's Civil Defense Controller. He's coordinating the regional and local response to this crisis. Mitchell was in his sixth floor office when the earthquake hit.

Peter Mitchell: What I heard is the building started to shake. I, of course, thought it was another aftershock because we've had so many since the earthquake in September. But then it just kept going and going and the monitor fell off my desk. Books came out of my bookcase and clearly it was much more serious. We evacuated the building.

Mullins: So you evacuated the building and outside the damage was quite different I guess depending on where people were. Tell us about the result.

Mitchell: Well certainly and initially when I got outside, the surge mainly broken right outside the building. There was water gushing down the road. A building next door, which had been damaged in the September quake, it (inaudible) although it was still standing. As we then walked away from the building, we found that the cathedral and (inaudible), which is a prominent feature of the city the (inaudible) has toppled off. Also, apparently one of the walls has partially collapsed as well.

Mullins: So where are you right now as we talk to you?

Mitchell: At the moment I'm in the city Academy, which we have been using as a civil defense emergency operation center.

Mullins: And who is there with you? Is this residents who have had to evacuate?

Mitchell: No, no. This is primarily city council civil defense staff. We are planning for the work for the next day. The urban search and rescue teams to go out to the buildings where there are still people trapped overnight.

Mullins: How do you know how many people are trapped? How do you get your estimate?

Mitchell: At the moment, it is only a general estimate. We understand it could be between 100 and certainly up to that number but we don't have any definite idea of the exact number of who are missing.

Mullins: We had heard, Peter, that you're able to get some messages from survivors who might still be buried through phone calls or text messages.

Mitchell: That could well be true. I don't know where that was all personally, but I could fully understand that because the cell phone network, although obviously overloaded a minute and a half after the shock, is working in the city.

Mullins: How do you know when there is such massive devastation, how do you know where to focus your efforts?

Mitchell: Well that's one of the key issues that we need to deal in terms of the buildings we're aware of at the moment, which we know have collapsed today. Clearly that will be a key priority. Also then, in terms of having resources, we have teams arriving, both from within New Zealand and from the United States, England, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan. We will need to go through all the buildings in the central city and also buildings at risk in the suburbs.

Mullins: Peter, if you don't mind my asking, have you been home since the quake struck?

Mitchell: I have been home this afternoon. My own house is fine. However, my daughter, for example, my daughter lives in a flat that you would call an apartment. We've had liquid faction, liquid soil if you like, running through the middle of her apartment and coming up through the shower pipes and so she can't live in the house at the moment.

Mullins: Is that a common problem, this kind of liquid soil?

Mitchell: Liquid soil, liquid faction, has been a common problem in September and again has been a problem today. What we find is when you have an earthquake, the force of the earthquake effectively liquefies the soil and it can either bubble up and ascend through roads. It looks (inaudible) in water pipes and causes them to break. It can also cause houses to slump and subside. There are a number of suburbs in the eastern part of the city where the roads are certainly covered with a liquid mud, is the way that a layman would probably see it. It makes quite difficult to drive and obviously for people who are leaving in houses.

Mullins: I just wonder, and I'll let you go, Peter. Your Prime Minister called this New Zealand's darkest day. For you, I know that you try to prepare for these things as part of your job. How would you describe it?

Mitchell: I think it's a very disappointing and dark day because of the loss of human life. We were so pleased that in September, what was a significant earthquake, there was no loss of life. There were two or three people injured but no one was killed at all. It essentially damaged the buildings and yet today we have people known to have lost their life and it has had a real impact on the city. We felt like we're getting on their feet in terms of recovery from September and now this is a real setback.

Mullins: All right. Peter, thank you. We wish you very good luck and your crew as well. Thank you again.

Mitchell: Thank you very much.