Getting real on quake risk

The Christchurch earthquakes took an immediate toll in deaths and property destruction.

They also triggered concerns among policy-makers to minimise the loss of life and damage in future earthquakes by formulating a national plan to deal with earthquake-prone buildings. The aftershocks, as those concerns are translated into public consultations, have shaken Waikato communities in recent days.

The Government somewhat quixotically aims to strengthen the country's buildings to make them more resilient to earthquakes and to improve construction techniques and earthquake codes. It would also strengthen its enforcement powers to deal with non-compliant property owners. Officials are engaged in a programme of public meetings around the country to gauge public opinion on those proposals.

Depending on the public feedback - and how much consideration it is given in Wellington - a seismic shift in policy is in the making. The proposed changes would require all commercial and residential multi-storey buildings to be assessed for seismic capacity every five years. The owners of buildings deemed to be "earthquake prone" or likely to collapse in a moderate earthquake would have 10 more years to strengthen or demolish them. Some 15,000-25,000 earthquake-prone buildings around the country would be affected.

Among the implications for Waikato, Hamilton could lose its grand heritage buildings and Otorohanga Mayor Dale Williams has expressed concerns that small towns would be turned into ghost towns because so many of their older buildings won't pass muster.

Waipa Mayor Alan Livingston perhaps is overstating things in saying all buildings could be made safe. He is bang on, however, when he says the cost of strengthening may make the work prohibitive, resulting in widespread demolitions. Heritage buildings worthy of preservation would be toppled in the name of excessive molly-coddling.

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson says getting the policy right involves striking a balance between the risks posed by buildings in earthquakes and the costs of strengthening or demolishing them. The weight of common sense would tip the scales from absurd idealism to practical realism.