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A magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook Darfield, a rural area of Canterbury, on September 4, 2010 at 4:35 a.m. The nearby city of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, was also impacted by the tremor. Overall, damage was moderate—ground shaking and associated liquefaction caused damage to unreinforced buildings and infrastructure, such as road, rail, water and wastewater systems and communications (Potter et al., 2015). There were few serious injuries and no deaths. The Darfield Earthquake was followed by protracted aftershocks, the most damaging of which was a magnitude 6.3 on February 22, 2011. This aftershock was much closer to Christchurch and caused the collapse of two multi-story buildings and numerous other unreinforced structures. A total of 185 people were killed and another 200 were seriously injured.

In large-scale events, research collaborations can save time and energy and minimize disruption in the community

The September quake set off a flurry of research activity. Through our roles in the Natural Hazards Platform we helped coordinate the many researchers coming to study the earthquake. In large-scale events, research collaborations can save time and energy and minimize disruption in the community—but such collaborations are better planned for in advance of events and their agendas must include practitioners and community needs.

Five years after the earthquake, this article looks back on the social science research environment after the occurrence of the Darfield and Christchurch earthquakes. We consider what arrangements worked best for researchers during this time and what lessons can be learned for research response to future disasters.

A coordinated approach to research

Discussions about what social science research to undertake—and who should undertake it—began almost immediately after the September quake and continued for more than a week. Disaster researchers from New Zealand were among the first to have these discussions and organize research projects related to the earthquakes. Those who had previously worked in the Canterbury area were best positioned to organize and conduct post-earthquake research, since they had established relationships with relevant organizations and the public.

Other researchers were also interested in studying the event. These included local researchers (e.g. from Canterbury, Lincoln, and Otago universities, as well as local non-governmental agencies) whose communities had been affected and who, therefore, had a stake in recovery. Additionally, international disaster scholars wanted to study the Canterbury quakes.

Given the widespread and varied interest, we realized that a coordinated approach to research was necessary to ensure research topics were identified and communicated, repetitive studies were limited, and research results were easily accessible to local agencies.

To achieve this, we created a basic electronic spreadsheet of projects being conducted by members of the Natural Hazards Research Platform and their colleagues, as well as research gaps that practitioners wanted filled. We then formed working groups to address projects in four thematic areas—business and insurance sector response and recovery, community resilience, emergency response, and recovery policy and practice. These groups met by teleconference every few weeks to give updates on their projects and draw on research linkages within the working group. The approach enhanced information flow and collaboration.

This system was working very well for us, until the devastating February 22 aftershock. Researchers were asked to place all non-essential research on hold to give emergency responders a chance to manage the operational elements of the disaster and to allow the community to recover from the psychosocial impacts. After a hiatus of several months, most non-essential social science research activities resumed.

Many social science researchers studying the Canterbury earthquakes shared a strong focus of working with agencies to improve recovery outcomes. For example, the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority Wellbeing Survey, which tracks recovery over time, was developed and run by a consortium of researchers and government agencies (Morgan et al. 2015). Another way researchers assisted the community was by providing support and advice on issues related to psychosocial recovery (Mooney et al. 2011). More recently, a team of researchers from GNS Science has been involved in the Christchurch Replacement District Plan process, which provides input and conducts reviews for a new local government land use plan. Participating in the recovery process generated extra work for researchers, but were also rewarding since researchers can see their work being used to improve public policy and community development.

Take-home messages

Now that five years has passed since the Darfield earthquake, it is possible to look back and see what worked in terms of our research response. First, it is clear that coordination of research around a disaster is essential. It guarantees that unnecessary duplication of research is avoided, that the best teams—including local representation— are developed to do the research, and that conflicts are managed.

We found it was essential that researchers work closely with practitioners and agencies to create research that supports recovery outcomes. Existing relationships with practitioners and the agencies involved helped with that process, but relationships still could be developed post-disaster if researchers were committed to working in the Canterbury area in the long-term.

Future disasters will undoubtedly occur, and when they do, pre-planning will greatly enhance the effectiveness of researchers that provide useful advice during response and contribute to evidence-based information for recovery. Strong pre-disaster relationships between individuals and research organization help coordinate collaboration during a disaster. Having structures in place, such as strong pre-disaster relationships between both individuals and research organizations— will speed up the coordination of collaboration during a disaster. In terms of specific structures and tools, we found setting up working groups and developing a spreadsheet of activities to be tremendously effective. These initiatives provided researchers opportunity to join together, share ideas, identify research gaps and interests, and form effective collaborations in topic areas where there was mutual interest.


Mooney MF., Paton D., de Terte I., et al. (2011). Psychosocial recovery from disasters: A framework informed by evidence. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 40(4): 26-38. Available from: http://www.psychology.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/NZJP-Vol404-2011-6-Mooney.pdf

Morgan J., Begg A., Beaven, S., et al (2015). Monitoring wellbeing during recovery from the 2010–2011 Canterbury earthquakes: The CERA wellbeing survey. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015 [published online 10 March 2015] doi:10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.01.012

Potter, S. H., Becker, J. S., Johnston, D. M., Rossiter, K. P. (2015). An overview of the impacts of the 2010-2011 Canterbury Earthquakes. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, [published online 11 March 2015] doi:10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.01.014.