Canterbury, New Zealand
Pipe Monitoring for Stronger Canterbury Infrastructure Rebuild
ClientStronger Canterbury Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT)
Having trained as a teacher, Nicki Ansell spent her early working life in the health and disabilities sector before moving on to become National Events and Sponsorship Manager for the Barnardo’s Children’s Trust. Motivated by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, she joined Geotechnics award-winning “poo crew”. This is her story.
Seven years after the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence (CES) began, Nicki Ansell’s once lovingly restored 1920s bungalow remains broken. Her spirit, however, is not. Her job as Pipe Monitoring Operations Manager for Geotechnics’ contract with the Stronger Canterbury Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) kept the mum-of-three looking forward, kept her strong, kept her sane.
When the 7.1Mw Darfield earthquake struck in the early hours of September 4, 2010, the Ansell family – Nicki, her husband Iain and children Jack, Grace and Max – woke to a living nightmare.
“The noise was deafening and the stunned realisation that we were experiencing an earthquake had us scrambling to get to our young children,” she remembers.
“My father was staying at the time and I yelled at him to get up. He said that if he was going to die he was going to die in the comfort of his bed!”
Daylight revealed a bomb site. Furniture had fallen over and broken. Kitchen cabinets had fallen off the wall and the pantry had emptied its contents on the kitchen floor, creating a lake of jam, sugar, flour, tomato sauce and relish. The glass shower had smashed and the chimney was down: “There was a lot of broken stuff. But we were all fine. That gives you perspective – stuff is just stuff”.
Worse was to come. On 22 February 2011, at 12.51pm, another 6.3Mw quake hit. Shallower than the Darfield event and far more deadly, it ravaged Christchurch, claiming 185 lives and reducing its streets to rubble-strewn, fire-ravaged, post-apocalyptic scenes.
Nicki was working near the airport on the west side of the city, while Iain was working in the QE2 building over the east side of the city.
“Our three children – Jack, Grace and Max - were at two different schools somewhere in the middle of us. Listening to reports on my car radio filled me with panic; Christchurch central city was decimated and people were dead. I remember consciously willing myself to be calm.”
As she fought her way down Papanui Road to collect her children, Nicki was confronted with the full horror of the situation: “Hundreds of people were walking down the middle of the street towards us, away from the city centre – some with their shoes off, some covered in dust and dirt, some bloodied.”
Her family were safe, but their bungalow had sustained even more damage. With her home and life as she knew it irreparably broken, Nicki’s turned her private devastation to motivation and set her sights on helping other Cantabrians to rebuild.
“I heard about a vacancy at Geotechnics through a family member…I was really motivated to get involved in the Christchurch re-build and with such a shortage of staff here at the time I thought ‘why not?’
“I’ve never been a girlie girl and I’m not afraid of a bit of dirt and physical work – and there is a part of me that thinks I can do anything.”
Nicki got the job, which she understood to be coordinating traffic management for a large pipe monitoring contract - putting together traffic management plans, getting them approved, setting up road closures and keeping ahead of the work. The full implications dawned on her at a project meeting, when she caught the word “wastewater”.
“Even then I thought we were monitoring new pipes that were going in. The realisation that we were going to be measuring the ups and downs of existing damaged sewage pipes and inserting our equipment directly into them was one of those ‘eyes wide open’ moments.”
The “eeeew!” factor was swiftly overcome with a mother’s pragmatism: “As a mum you soon get your head around nappies and vomit…”
As the commencement date of the project edged closer Nicki embarked on the necessary range of training - Site Safe, Traffic Controller, STMS, and Confined Space Entry.
Initially responsible for traffic management, Nicki used any down time to get involved in all aspects of the work on site: “I was trained in calibrating and operating the profilometer and learnt how to conduct the testing, read the infrastructure plans and direct the work on site.”
The team approach resulted in unparalleled efficiency and productivity: “Before long we had two crews and I was co-ordinating the project at all levels.”
Nicki’s previous experience in service and event management meant that she had many transferable skills. She was in her element.
“In-house we became known as the ‘poo crew’ and before long I had earned the prestigious title of ‘poo girl’.
“On a personal level I also found that my involvement in the project really helped me. The frustration of having nothing moving ahead with our home repairs was balanced out by seeing this project move forward.
“Each time we completed an area it was highlighted on the map and crossed off the list. It was incredibly satisfying and uplifting to have that overview and clearly see the gains.”
Initially all of Geotechnics’ wastewater work was focussed in Christchurch’s east, in perhaps some of the worst affected areas.
“House after house was abandoned,” Nicki recalls. “Other areas had loads of people at home during the day and they would come out onto the street to see what we were doing.
“People wanted to talk and to tell their story, there was a lot of loss and grief and a lot of stress and frustration.”
Owning a damaged TC3 house herself proved a great leveller that instantly initiated an olive branch: “You’re one of us then”.
The first few weeks were a steep learning curve for everyone involved with the project. There were a lot of unknowns. Each day brought new challenges, head scratching and problem-solving on the hop.
“It was great to be part of those early brainstorming sessions which resulted in new innovations and adjusting our methodology for success.”
The team’s inventive solutions not only eliminated or isolated hazards, but also increased productivity and efficiency. This culminated in the project receiving regional and national Innovation in Health and Safety awards.
“However the real reward was having our team come home each night with all their fingers and toes,” Nicki says. “It is great to work for a company that was so willing to resource our innovations and experiment in that way with real autonomy and creativity.”
Nicki’s ever-present creativity and pragmatic approach was welcomed by Christchurch homeowners faced with the much-dreaded blowback.
Blowback occurs during the process of flushing the main sewage line, where the force of the water blows the contents of the pipe up a property’s lateral connection to the toilet pan inside the house.
The result could be anything from a bit of gurgling in the toilet to a geyser that would erupt from the pan and splatter the ceiling. Some properties were especially susceptible due to the proximity and length of the lateral.
“As you can imagine this was very distressing for the homeowner who was already dealing with so much,” Nicki says. “I decided that it made sense to clean the mess myself. I also put together a kit of Gladwrap, newspaper and bricks, and began wrapping and weighting down people’s toilet lids if required.”
“Going the extra mile and the goodwill that it created was worth it. It’s a small world and people talk - or comment on Facebook - and I didn’t want a bad reputation to precede us as we moved around each suburb.”
The profilometer is inserted into the wastewater pipes by a jetting truck hose which also cleans the pipe with high pressure water. Access is established via two manholes - the sucker truck down one end and the profilometer at the other.
If the manhole cavity was full it usually meant significant damage and you could hear the high pressure water hose thundering along in the pipe underground. As it advanced, the noise grew louder and this was a clear signal to stand well back from the manhole.
One particular morning the water jet pressure was up quite high as the pipe the team was working on was very blocked. As the jetting nozzle arrived, the pressure blasted watery raw sewage two metres into the air.
“Fatefully, just at that moment a gust of wind blew and I got splattered in the face with poo,” Nicki recalls with a huge laugh. “This resulted in a spectacular power chunder into a resident’s agapanthus and was a source of hilarity and amusement for all who were in the vicinity.”
A self-confessed night owl, Nicki enjoyed night shifts. When working close to home, she would zip back and see the kids before they went to bed.
“I was the only one with children in our team and they were really respectful of that. When I didn’t roster myself on at night I’d often make a massive pot of soup and take it to site at around 11.30pm, turning my car boot into a soup kitchen. If other contractors were in the vicinity at the time, they’d get soup too.”
The school teacher turned Operations Manager has no regrets. Despite the less savoury aspects of the job, Nicki confesses that she grew to love the SCIRT project: “I never used think about what happened when you flushed the toilet, but for three years it consumed me.”
Nicki Ansell was interviewed by Lindy Andrews for this story