Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Newcastle Earthquake - 28 December 1989


Aftermath was written by Doug Lithgow one year after the Newcastle Earthquake

"It is vital that local government and the normal processes of the law are maintained and available to all citizens especially in the aftermath of an earthquake"

December 30th 1990
Doug Lithgow a spokesperson

The first anniversary

The first anniversary of the Newcastle earthquake has passed and we remember the tragedy of those who died and express compassion for their families and friends. We remember the damage and the distress.

However, we also need to examine the aftermath of the earthquake from a community perspective to gain an appreciation of the special questions that were raised by the community at the time and the best way that these can be solved in the future.

The Newcastle community was unprepared for an earthquake and an appropriate and generally accepted emergency plan was not immediately available. Inappropriate police powers had to be used and normal local government did not function. The city administration used delegated authority, and with the Lord Mayor assumed civic responsibility. Some sections of the State Government were intent on demolitions and real estate development while the state opposition seemed unable to express constructive ideas. The normal processes of the law were found wanting in certain instances.

Unofficial Proposals for disposal of public land in Newcastle,
Most citizens were unaware that the Police Regulations Emergencies (Amendment) Act, 1988, had changed the law and given police power to arbitrarily remove people from areas that police think may be dangerous even private homes or business premises. Citizens were also unaware that proposals existed for the City Council and the State Government to dispose of many large areas of public land in Newcastle, demolish public buildings, cut the railway to Newcastle at Broadmeadow, and target the disposal of certain private land to developers.(Download link below: Hirst 1988 CBD Business Plan )

Concerned citizens knew that the earthquake was a disaster of national proportions, but to some in government and the administration, it was a golden opportunity. Extra police powers coupled with the unofficial proposals for disposal of public assets for development compounded the disaster and in the absence of normal public scrutiny, created conditions of irresistible temptation for opportunists and a disregard for the views expressed by the community.

On the day after the earthquake, the Minister for Health, Peter Collins, visited the city and announced that three wings of the Royal Newcastle Hospital would be demolished using the excuse of earthquake damage. The State Government also immediately took the opportunity to stop the railway at Broadmeadow and close the inner city. Many publicly owned buildings were emptied and demolitions proposed.

The community was alarmed.
Three days after the earthquake, on Sunday the 31st of December at 2 O'clock about two hundred concerned citizens gathered for a public meeting in National Park at the corner of Parkway Ave and Union Street on the edge of the cordoned off city. Newcastle historian, Margaret Henry, convened the meeting and each of the following resolutions were adopted unanimously:

1. The people of this meeting express their grief at the loss of life incurred in the earthquake and convey their condolences to the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives in the disaster.

2. That the meeting thank the police ,the State Emergency Service and other emergency services for their good work which has been very much appreciated over the past few days.

3. The meeting resolved that Council, as the community's representatives, be recalled immediately to regain control of the city.

4. This meeting expresses its concern at the threatened demolition of residential and commercial buildings in the city and asks the authorities to ensure that all buildings are secured and made safe so that work can be started on the proper assessment and restoration of these buildings, such assessment to be undertaken by qualified heritage architects and structural engineers. Further that owners of those buildings be advised of their rights concerning the preservation of their buildings.

5. That this meeting of concerned citizens request that the obviously dangerous buildings in the city be cordoned off and that the normal business life of the city be allowed to proceed as soon as possible.

6. Furthermore ,that all citizens be given the freedom to move in the city to visit friends relatives and loved ones that have been affected by the earthquake.

Other resolutions were carried requesting a moratorium on the demolition of the Royal Newcastle Hospital and public school buildings and requesting that proper assessment be made of the damage to all heritage buildings. It was further requested that methods of demolition used be such that materials from buildings could be saved for reuse.

The resolutions from this public meeting were immediately faxed to the city administration, the Premier of NSW, Nick Greiner, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, state and federal members of parliament, and the media.

There was no direct positive response from any organ of government and we now know that communications to the city administration were redirected to a public relations firm.

Citizens' Earthquake Action Group.
On 2 January, 1990, twenty representatives from community groups and from the Dec.31, public meeting met at Adamstown Heights. They endorsed the resolutions of the December 31st public meeting and formed the Citizens' Earthquake Action Group. They also adopted a submission to be sent to the Premier, the Prime Minister, and our parliamentary representatives, requesting urgent funds for detailed assessment of damage and the establishment of a Task Force to oversee the allocation of the funds and the procedures to be adopted during restoration of the city. A special submission was sent to Senator Graham Richardson, the Minister responsible for the National Estate, concerning the restoration of heritage buildings. The Meeting also elected Keith Parsons, Margaret Henry and Doug Lithgow to be spokespersons for CEAG and nominated representatives on any Task Force that might be established.

CEAG held three large public meetings in the first three weeks following the earthquake, and a further two meetings in conjunction with the Association for the Preservation of Technology. The last two meetings were held to advise householders on techniques in repairing earthquake damaged buildings.

Members of the Action Group were involved in heavy personal expenditure for phone, fax, photo copying and legal services. The group also letter boxed the inner city and the Hamilton area on several occasions advertising the meetings. The Citizens' Earthquake Action Group as well as advocating the protection of Newcastle's heritage, was busy helping people affected by the quake, endeavouring to protect their civil liberties and campaigning for funds from State and Federal Governments.

The first three public meeting held by CEAG generated a large number of actions and representations that had to be implemented. The group continued to carry out the wishes of the community as expressed at the public meetings even though there seemed little positive response from the authorities.

Demolition of the George Hotel and the Carrington Chambers
The extraordinary circumstances surrounding the demolition of the George Hotel and the Carrington Chambers on the 6th and 7th of Jan 1990, demonstrated the depth of the problems confronting the city. The council administration would not recognise the buildings as heritage buildings although they were listed on Council's Urban Design Study nor would it make available for public inspection the reports on the damage to the buildings or allow the buildings to be inspected by heritage and structural engineers. The Lord Mayor claimed that there may be an aftershock and the buildings were in danger of falling into the street. He had previously stated in his press release on the 1st of January that there had been no significant aftershocks in Newcastle's two previously recorded earthquakes and the risk of an aftershock was diminishing. (CEAG had been advised by earthquake experts that there was little likelihood of an aftershock) Many people were allowed to enter these buildings and remove fittings and material without being stopped by the policeman on duty.
Report of Structural Engineer 31st December 1989

Order to Demolish from Town Clerk 5th January 1990
George Hotel and Carrington Chambers Herald Photo 15 X 1990 162 Photo taken 9 days after earthquake and before demolition commenced ( City had been closed to the public)

Workmen spent most of the Friday night before the demolition removing material from the George Hotel. Other property owners were not afforded this courtesy.

Buildings demolished to prevent inspection by Heritage engineer
It seemed as though the buildings were demolished to prevent the National Trust's structural engineer and Heritage expert Colin Crisp from inspecting them to give an authoritative opinion on their condition. In the case of the Carrington Chambers, an injunction had been issued by Justice Stein in the Land and Environment Court to restrain all parties involved from demolishing the building.

The issues raised by the demolition of these two buildings were of such importance that a further public meeting was held at 4pm on the 7th of January at Cooks Hill. That meeting condemned the demolition of the buildings and insisted that all documents be made public. Twenty one resolutions were carried and the circumstances surrounding the disregard of the injunction were later referred to the ombudsman for investigation.

Royal Newcastle Hospital buildings
CEAG had the Royal Newcastle Hospital buildings, the North Wing, York Wing and Wheeler House inspected internally and externally by two independent structural engineers. The buildings had been stripped of all equipment in readiness for demolition even though they were subject to Heritage protection and were repairable. The York Wing was subsequently demolished before it could be officially inspected be the National Trust's structural engineer, Colin Crisp.

The 31 December public meeting had asked that a moratorium be placed on the demolition of the hospital buildings so that ways to preserve and recycle these buildings could be considered. The Mater Hospital at Waratah had also been badly damaged by the earthquake but the authorities there had only removed patients from the damaged wards so that they could be repaired.

Demolishers had free run while citizens were denied access
CEAG was concerned that demolishers had free run in the closed off city while ordinary citizens were denied access and made feel like interlopers in their own city. Citizens were unable to exercise their normal right to protect or salvage their own property. This was particularly damaging to those people who did not have insurance cover or had their property in rented or leased premises. A police officer in charge of Hamilton told the CEAG public meeting at Hamilton on the 14th of January, that he thought demolishers had the rights of salvage. CEAG's legal advice was that such actions would be larceny.

Post earthquake Construction Authority proposed
The January 14th public meeting of CEAG held at Hamilton, called for the establishment of a post earthquake Construction Authority to provide overall funding and asked that a Task Force be set up comprising representatives from federal, state, local government and the community, together with appropriate professional experts to initiate the required local projects. The meeting also requested that Newcastle Council's City Centre Committee be widened to include members of the community, the Newcastle Trades Hall Council, and consumers.
Newcastle City Council should have met
In the circumstances, CEAG, did all that could be reasonably expected of ordinary citizens and played a useful role during the aftermath of the Newcastle Earthquake. However, when we consider the problems that confronted the inner city community, it becomes obvious that the Newcastle aldermen should have met as a full Newcastle City Council immediately after the earthquake at a place accessible to the community.

The earthquake demonstrated that the City should be divided into wards as it used to be with aldermen representing each ward. Newcastle East, the City, Cooks Hill, Broadmeadow and Hamilton areas were all badly affected by the earthquake and had no local Alderman to represent them. We have no doubt that if the inner suburbs had been represented by aldermen the City Council would have been recalled as was requested by the first public meeting on December the 31st.

Newcastle people have shown their resilience and patience during and following this ,Australia's first, major earthquake. The costs have been high in life and property and are still mounting.

A special disaster plan is needed to meet the particular problems that arise in the aftermath of an earthquake and an urgent response from state and federal governments is needed to establish an authority that has the power and resources to bring together recognised professional structural engineers, architects, geologists and heritage experts to accurately assess damage, set standards and direct government funds for restoration.

An earthquake is a particular type of disaster: it can strike without warning, it is widespread and immediate in its effect, random in its choice of victims and extremely costly to individuals and to the community as a whole.

It is unwise in the aftermath of an earthquake, to have police, using powers that are more appropriate for emergencies like fire or flood, effectively deciding on engineering matters which relate to the structural safety of buildings. There should also be a simple way of allowing all owners to salvage their belongings or make safe their property at their own risk or with the advice of a structural engineer. An earthquake Reconstruction Authority and local Task Force as suggested by CEAG should have been assembled immediately following the earthquake. This would have allowed the SES to concentrate on their special role of rescue and protection of life. The authority would have provided an clear accountable avenue for the disbursement of federal and state funds to achieve specific publicly acceptable goals. ( See CEAG's suggested structure dated 29 Jan 90.)

There was absolutely no excuse for the authorities to disregard the injunction that would have allowed Mr Colin Crisp to inspect the Carrington Chambers or for their failure to use the legislation designed to protect our heritage. It is vital that local government and the normal processes of the law are maintained and available to all citizens especially in the aftermath of an earthquake.


Doug Lithgow. December 30, 1990

Tuesday, December 8, 2009



Councillors and General Manager of the Newcastle City Council
Newcastle City Hall
King Street

Dear Councillors and General Manager,


Parks and Playgrounds Movement have nothing but praise for the wonderful work that has been done by the Merewether Landcare. We are conscious of the philosophy of the overall concept of their new initiative that they are placing before you this evening.

We acknowledge the work that has and is being done for the people of the City and for the Merewether environment.

Councillors and Council Officers are reminded that wrong things are done at times even with good intentions such as the planing of the invasive African Bitou Bush to revegetate coastal areas after rutile mining. The Bitou Bush escaped to become a scourge of the coast. The Merewether Landcarers have with their project shown the way to restore a much changed coastal landscape.

In our praise of today’s Merewether Landcare we would like to bring to your notice the Deed of Conveyance (Book 1617 folio 944) in which the trustees, William and Edward Merewether, on the 28th November 1930 conveyed to the Merewether Municipal Council much of the foreshore openspace we enjoy today.

The Deed of Conveyance states in part:

“That it (The Council for its part and its successors and assigns) will at all times use and maintain the said land as a park or public reserve as defined by the Local Government Act 1919 and will not permit the same to be used for any other purpose whatsoever

We trust that the Newcastle Council as the successors of the former Municipal Council will also honour the Deed of the former Council and appreciate the work and the Heritage Park initiative of the Merewether Landcare.

Yours sincerely,

Doug Lithgow
A Freeman of the City of Newcastle
President of the Parks and Playgrounds Movement