Editorial: Earthquakes a reminder

Last updated 13:57 22/01/2014

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OPINION: The consequences of the earthquake in the lower North Island on Monday will be very familiar to anyone who has lived through the Canterbury earthquakes over the past three years.

There is the damage itself. There was fortunately no loss of life or injury, but from all around the region there are reports of chimneys down, damage to houses and other buildings including a dairy factory, crockery and artwork damaged, fallen bookcases and so on. There have already been aftershocks and seismologists forecast that there will be more in the coming days and weeks which will continue to jangle already unsteady nerves.

Monday's shock was not far off the magnitude of the Christchurch one of three years ago. It was, however, much deeper and and its epicentre further away from heavily populated areas so the fallout has blessedly been much less severe. Nonetheless, it is a powerful reminder of the ever- present need to be well-prepared for such an event.

As with most earthquakes, there was no immediate warning that Monday's event was about to occur. But the region is one of the more earthquake prone in the country. There are several faultlines and the Pacific tectonic plate and the Australian plate, whose interaction caused the latest tremor, are in the vicinity. Four large earthquakes shook the region between 1990 and 1992 and strong quakes, one as large as 8.2 on the Richter scale, have struck in 1855, 1904, 1913, 1934, and twice in 1942.

So while the Monday quake came out of the blue it can hardly be described as unexpected in that region. Indeed, as Canterbury's experience also shows, there is practically nowhere in New Zealand where a damaging earthquake could not be expected. Which is why the complacency revealed by the results of a recent survey done for the Earthquake Commission is surprising. Even after years of advertising campaigns fronted by high-profile show business figures and after the Canterbury quakes, the survey showed that fewer than half of homeowners had secured their tall furniture (not surprisingly, Canterbury people were more diligent than the population as a whole).

Resistance to earthquake- proofing property extends beyond reluctance to do anything to secure furniture and vulnerable items around the house. Despite the many fatalities caused by bricks and cladding falling from buildings made from unreinforced masonry and recommendations made by the royal commission that looked into them, some building owners in many places around the country have not moved as swiftly as they might have to make their properties safer.

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One property in Masterton red-stickered after Monday's earthquake was a three-storey residential building on the main street owned by the town's former mayor, Garry Daniell. In 2012, when the building appeared on a district council list as being below one-third compliance with the current building code, Daniell, who at the time was mayor and might have been expected to set a good example for other owners, said he would not act to do anything about it until he received instructions to do so from the council. After Monday's event, the building has been cleared of its residents pending an engineering inspection.

Bringing buildings, particularly older ones, up to the level where they will be safe in earthquakes can be expensive. The consequences of leaving them below code, however, can be far graver. For home owners, getting vulnerable chimneys, fences, hot-water cylinders and the like reinforced is hardly prohibitive and securing bookcases and tall furniture costs practically nothing. The Earthquake Commission has just begun running a new series of television commercials publicising the importance of doing so, some featuring people such as Sam Johnson who became prominent after the Canterbury events. Coinciding as they do with another major shake, with luck they may drive the message home.

- The Press

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