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When Strong Earthquake Hit Christchurch, Big Data Illuminated the Road to Recovery

May 05, 2014

Stuart Kilduff was attending an emergency services conference in Wellington, New Zealand, when he got a call that Christchurch, his hometown some 270 miles (440 kilometers) away, had been hit by a massive earthquake. “The place was full of emergency services people, civil defense, army, you name it,” he says as he recalls that early afternoon on February 22, 2011. “They all went running for the door.”

After checking that his family and colleagues were safe, Kilduff, who works as operations manager for energy provider Orion New Zealand, made his way to the airport, and boarded an air ambulance bound for the stricken city. “One of my control managers has been in the game for years and normally nothing rattles him,” Kilduff recalls. “You could tell from his voice that he was quite shook up by the way the building reacted. It nearly collapsed so they were pretty lucky.”

When he landed, Kilduff went straight into Orion’s operation center and spent the first night trying to figure out the extent of the damage to the power network.

The team was using a digital outage management system from GE to survey the network and start planning recovery. They used the system, called PowerOn, to restore electricity to sites like hospitals, where more than 6,600 people were being treated for injuries, and move quickly to disconnect dangerously damaged buildings. “Two or three of us spent the night in the control room working our way through what was available and what wasn’t,” Kilduff says.


Christchurch earthquake approximate areas without power as at 4 pm Monday 13 June 2011. Image Credit: Orion.

The Orion electricity network supplies electricity into 193,000 homes and businesses. It covers more than 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers).

The earthquake landed the city a severe blow. West Christchurch was mostly still online, but the center and the east of the city was in the dark. “At that stage even the control room was running off a generator,” Kilduff recalls.

 The PowerOn system gave Kilduff and his team a single view of the city’s network in real time. It allowed them to monitor and control the distribution of electricity through the Christchurch network and track repair crews as they restored power across the city.

Kilduff says that at the height of the response there were 1,000 contractors surveying and disconnecting the damaged buildings, installing generators, repairing damaged overhead connections and cable faults.

They also salvaged a key communications site in the city’s central business district that would have taken down mobile communications had it lost power. For weeks this tower was powered by generators, as the surrounding substations remained too dangerous to enter due to damage and aftershocks.

Christchurch from the skies from

A satellite image of Christchurch. Image Credit:

Tragically, 185 people lost their lives in the disaster. Many on Kilduff’s team were personally affected, but they worked around the clock to get lights, stoves and heaters back on across the city.

Kilduff says Orion is now in the process of building a second data center and a new emergency operations center, and adding staff trained for emergencies. If another earthquake were to hit Christchurch, the Orion network will be more resilient.

But Kilduff hopes he’ll never again have to call them into action. “With a bit of luck it won’t happen again in my lifetime,” he says.