April 25, 2013


The above demolition work, a result of the 2011 magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, was featured at the recent National Demolition Association convention.

FEATURE | Demolition

Canadian demo contractors should be earthquake ready

A future earthquake will, in all likelihood, inflict significant damage on a major Canadian city and demolition contractors will almost certainly play an important role during disaster recovery. However many cities are simply unprepared to mobilize the forces required to deal with an earthquake emergency.

That’s the word from three demolition contractors who participated in the disaster recovery following the massive 6.3 magnitude earthquake that hammered Christchurch, New Zealand in February 2011, killing 185 people. The message was delivered to the 40th Annual Convention of the National Demolition Association (NDA) in San Diego in March.

The surrounding Canterbury region had been struck by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake the previous September, which resulted in no loss of life, but significantly weakened buildings, roads and bridges.

“There was high damage to buildings,” says Peter Ward, president of Ward Demolition Ltd. of Auckland, NZ. “However, the investigation from the first earthquake was not yet sufficient enough for detailed engineering reports.”

Ward notes that his company was initially denied permission to assist with rescue work, because there was no standing authorization for demolition crews to respond.

Prior to the quake, the market had been primarily served by two large demolition contractors. Once recovery efforts began, Christchurch was flooded with 160 companies that soon registered as demolition contractors.

“Inexperienced contractors started to join the industry and dropped work standards,” says Ward. “Everybody with a digger became a demolition expert.”

Ward says the flood of companies spurred bidding wars. Rogue demolition companies also illegally dumped construction waste.

Cash flow also became a problem. Clients, both government and private, were slow to pay demolition bills, while an overworked insurance industry found it difficult to settle claims.

Among the biggest challenges was the safe demolition and removal of the Grand Chancellor hotel, which stood 26 storeys and 278 feet tall. The building leaned more than six feet to the east, but remained supported by seismic framing. Demolition was expected to take a year. Ward, however, demolished the building using a complex top-down method in only six months.

“I wasn’t prepared for what I saw there in Christchurch,” says John Weber, retired president of Iconco/LVI Demolition Services in Oakland, CA, who assisted as part of a team assembled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Weber notes that better planning would have helped contractors focus on removing buildings that would have cleared key transportation arteries first.

Mark Loizeaux, president of Phoenix-based Controlled Demolition, Inc., imploded such structures as The Radio Network Building in central Christchurch. He recommends that appropriate authorities appoint a disaster “czar” vested with the power to approve removal of any dangerous buildings, both public and private. That czar should also have the authority to pay bills from day one.

“Lack of these things leads to paralysis,” he says.

In a video statement, Christchurch mayor Bob Parker spoke to the initial difficulty in establishing protocols to address widespread chaos.

“I think just at the start of the response and recovery phase everyone was on unexplored territory in an absolute emergency situation,” he said. “Some of the paperwork right at the beginning of the process needed to be improved on.”

Parker advised authorities at all levels of government to establish protocols prior to an emergency to allow demolition companies to get to work faster.

“We actually owe our demolition guys a huge vote of thanks for their response—a lot of it self-initiated response — in the first hours of the emergency,” he said.

“Demolition companies should be part of that broader civil defense emergency management package. It’s only by being in at the ground floor at the exercise and planning phases that will allow you to prevent some of what happened after that event.”

The NDA is currently seeking sponsors to assist with the development of a disaster manual for communities to help them save lives, facilitate faster demolition response, and avoid the consequences of delayed decision making.

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