Wellington earthquake fear: No way in or out

KATIE CHAPMAN AND DANYA LEVY
Last updated 09:30 17/02/2012
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Major routes in and out of New Zealand's capital city could be blocked by rubble from more than 400 buildings with unstable masonry in the event of a big earthquake.

A new council report into Wellington's resilience has found the city's economy would take a $37 billion hit if it experienced an event like the Christchurch earthquake, with many core businesses and services – including the Government – likely to leave the city permanently.

Among concerns highlighted in the report are the 435 buildings in Wellington with unreinforced masonry, 166 of which are heritage buildings.

The location of many earthquake-prone buildings along important strategic roads means routes needed by emergency services in the event of a big earthquake could end up blocked by fallen masonry.

Wellington City Council is looking at ways to try to speed up earthquake-strengthening work in the city.

This includes talks with banks about collecting targeted rates so people could pay back special bank loans, encouraging neighbouring buildings to be strengthened together as one building, and organising bulk repairs at a discounted rate.

In the report going to councillors next week, officers have updated the state of the city's earthquake-prone buildings, and laid out options for trying to ease the financial burden on building owners faced with hefty strengthening bills.

The report calls for $1.4 million to be included in the council's draft long-term plan to help continue work identifying at-risk buildings and to create schemes to help building owners finance strengthening work.

The council is investigating ways of making repairs cheaper for owners, such as more advanced technology, or getting a stretch of buildings to carry out repairs as a precinct, which would be cheaper than each one doing it individually.

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said the character of the city had to be considered in strengthening work. "We don't want to lose the sense of place that is Wellington."

The report also highlights the possibility of a $37b economic blow for the city if it experienced an event like Christchurch's, along with the potential that many businesses could leave.

"A concern for Wellington city is the limited options to temporarily relocate businesses to the periphery of the region ... Indeed, for many corporates (and potentially government), relocation to another centre may be a preferred option."

Council earthquake resilience programme manager Neville Brown said the focus for Wellington had to be on improving its ability to cope. "We now understand, more than we ever have before, that ... we need to make sure the key lifelines are protected."

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However, for many building owners the cost of strengthening work was the scariest thing. Among options being considered was helping owners facilitate bank loans, he said.

Discussions had already been held with BNZ about loans being repaid through targeted rates. The loan would be with the building, so if the owner sold, the new owner would take over the rate.

The option would require legislative change.

Wade-Brown said the council could not, and should not, borrow the money directly, but the option would help give lenders confidence. "If a particular business goes bankrupt, that doesn't mean the loan bounces back."

The council also intended to lobby the Government for other changes to make it easier for building owners, such as a scheme similar to the Heat Smart Programme, she said.

The move comes as the royal commission into the Christchurch earthquakes, which killed 185 people, continues. Unreinforced masonry has already been identified as a cause of concern by the commission.

Brown said it was important to start putting in motion steps that would enable Wellington to respond quickly to potential law changes around building codes.

The Government says councils need to know the risks their cities face in an earthquake and has welcomed the Wellington City Council report.

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said today action would need to be taken once buildings were identified as high risk.

"In the last couple of weeks, almost daily at the Royal Commission, we have heard evidence that you simply can't ignore the earthquake risk that some older buildings do present.

"You are better knowing what that risk is, than finding out as a result of some tragedy."

Brownlee, who is also Transport Minister, said the potential for Wellington to be cut off had concerned him for some time.

"Wellington is quite right to point out there could be a certain amount of isolation if there was a large earthquake.

"One of the things that was helpful for Christchurch was that it is flat and you can circumnavigate the city from one side to another by a multitude of other routes.

"Not everywhere, particularly Wellington, has that opportunity."

The Christchurch earthquake would change the way towns were planned, he said.

"You look at how life lines work.

"We'll obviously over time have to reconsider a whole lot of things around various risk factors where there is a large urban population."

 



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Click here for the strategic roads map

Click here for the building building construction type map

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- The Dominion Post

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