Opinion: Our response to the latest earthquake is worrying - are we ready for the next 'big one'?

Cordons around quake-hit buildings and fluoro-clad officials have brought back memories from Christchurch - how would we ...
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Cordons around quake-hit buildings and fluoro-clad officials have brought back memories from Christchurch - how would we cope if their "big one" hit here?

OPINION: As a former inhabitant of Christchurch, last week's magnitude-7.8 earthquake and its impact on Wellington has brought back all too familiar feelings.

Navigating around hastily erected wire fence cordons, waiting for the latest update from fluoro-clad officials, playing "guess the magnitude" after the latest aftershock: These are my old habits from the quake-hit Garden City, picked up again with almost disturbing ease.

This makes it hard to know whether my fear about the nonchalant response of so many Wellingtonians to the latest events is an overreaction, or right on the mark.

Cuba St, home to more than 40 quake-prone buildings, was filled with buskers and shoppers barely 48 hours after the earthquake.

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More worryingly, some officials and politicians have appeared too quick to promote a return to business as usual, when a more conservative approach would seem the right move.

Cuba St has more than 40 quake-prone buildings, but shoppers had returned less than 48 hours after the latest earthquake.
ANDREW GORRIE/FAIRFAX NZ

Cuba St has more than 40 quake-prone buildings, but shoppers had returned less than 48 hours after the latest earthquake.

For instance, take this comment from a mayor about the safety of shoppers in the "95 per cent" of the CBD which was unaffected.

"I think we all need to keep this in perspective. I am taking this very seriously, but I believe we all have matters under control."

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester? No - it was acting Christchurch Mayor Ngaire Button, reassuring anxious Cantabrians after a sizeable Boxing Day aftershock following the September 2010 earthquake.

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester.
MAARTEN HOLL/ FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester.

Less than two months later, a devastating earthquake struck under the city and 185 people lost their lives.

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That's not to say that history will repeat.

But it should sound a note of caution to those like Lester, who said it was not his job "to create chaos or fear", when fear is entirely reasonable and healthy, if used to prepare properly for a potential follow-up shake.

STRUCTURAL FAILINGS A WORRY

Take the growing number of buildings, some alarmingly new, evacuated due to structural concerns.

On top of that, there are more than 600 buildings designated by the Wellington City Council as earthquake-prone, some of which don't need to be repaired or demolished until as late as 2034.

A demolition crew works at demolishing a building on Molesworth St damaged after the earthquake.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

A demolition crew works at demolishing a building on Molesworth St damaged after the earthquake.

Again, this hits uncomfortably close to home: Parliament's press gallery annex, which houses roughly 30 political journalists, is on that list.

No strengthening work has taken place, with statues of former prime ministers Richard Seddon and John Ballance seemingly a greater priority for the Parliamentary Service than living, breathing humans.

Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith's claim in Parliament that the press gallery is not an earthquake-prone building is undercut by the bold, black type on the yellow notice attached to its entrance. Media organisations have now taken the decision out of officials' hands, choosing to vacate for safer offices.

The statue of Richard Seddon outside Parliament has received strengthening work. The building housing 30 political ...
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

The statue of Richard Seddon outside Parliament has received strengthening work. The building housing 30 political journalists? Not so much.

To his credit, Lester is pushing to use new laws allowing councils to slash the timeframe for strengthening quake-prone buildings, set to come into force from July next year.

The Government should do whatever it can to let that happen, and both it and the council should consider more grants or tax breaks to help building owners speed up their work.

A government investigation into the failure of Statistics House must also be expanded as widely as necessary to look at other modern buildings which have inexplicably failed to hold up well structurally.

Lyall Bay School practises a tsunami evacuation drill in light of the recent earthquake/tsunami threat. Mixed messages ...
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Lyall Bay School practises a tsunami evacuation drill in light of the recent earthquake/tsunami threat. Mixed messages from Civil Defence about the tsunami risk confused many.

FAULTS IN OUR EMERGENCY SYSTEM

Beyond the situation in Wellington, there are other worrying faults in our emergency management organisations which must be fixed.

The omnishambles that was Civil Defence's response to the tsunami threat, with mixed messages, hours-long delays and sirens staying silent, exposed the confusing structural mishmash behind our emergency set-up.

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has said changes to the organisation's structure are "inevitable".
ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has said changes to the organisation's structure are "inevitable".

Putting local councils in charge of their boundaries, with regional groups controlling the wider response and the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management providing a "leadership" role, is supposedly about empowering local authorities to make the most of their knowledge.

In reality, it's a recipe for disaster and confusion. On Thursday, West Coast's Civil Defence organisation created widespread panic after issuing an "urgent warning" for a large aftershock without any basis in science, forcing the ministry and GeoNet to step in and reassure strained nerves.

The ministry's response to criticisms has been characterised by vague platitudes about a debriefing process and, at points, an innate defensiveness.

Questions about failures were weeks too early, we were told - why were we undermining the "bloody good work" being done on the earthquake response?

Bloody good work it has been, but residents with no faith in the current warning systems would surely quibble with the suggestion that addressing these glaring problems is "premature".

The Prime Minister's former chief press secretary has been parachuted in from the State Services Commission to oversee "strategic communications" - that speaks volumes.

CIVIL DEFENCE CHANGES 'INEVITABLE'

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has only held the portfolio for a few months, but with typical forthrightness has declared changes to Civil Defence are "inevitable" after the recent failings.

What those changes may be is unclear, overtaken for the moment by the need to restore essential services to Kaikoura and elsewhere.

However, Brownlee has hinted at reconsidering a recommendation following the 2011 Christchurch quake - shelved at the time - to take emergency response powers away from local authorities, presumably in favour of a centralised approach.

It's understood Brownlee was concerned about the decision not to declare a state of emergency in Wellington, and to re-open the CBD so soon after the shake.

While he declared himself content with the decision after meeting council officials, the growing number of buildings which have since been evacuated - coupled with memories of the collapsed CTV and PGC buildings in Christchurch - must be playing on his mind.

Centralising power, at least for moderately-sized emergencies, is an idea that seems on the face of it to have merit.

However, any sweeping changes may be fiercely resisted by local councils and opposition parties, rightly concerned about a power grab exceeding what is needed.

Councils cannot be shut out of the process - a fact Brownlee has acknowledged, given the large numbers of volunteers they train to provide vital support.

However, diplomatic niceties must be disregarded if they will get in the way of ensuring New Zealand is ready for our next emergency.

I have been in a city that patted itself on the back for its preparedness, only for disaster to strike. I don't want to see that happen again.

 - Stuff

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