Too Much Talk About Learning Lessons and Not Enough Action

It was disturbing to find the lessons of Christchurch were not  fully understood in Wellington following the November 14 earthquake sequence. Soon after the September 2010 earthquake organisations and businesses in the Christchurch CBD were quick to claim it was ‘business as usual’. Naturally these organisations and businesses in Christchurch were concerned for the economic wellbeing of the city. However it was in hindsight the wrong message to send out. 

The tragic events of February 2011 in Christchurch, with the large loss of life, could perhaps have been minimised had people understood the danger they were in. Weakened buildings hide their danger from the public eye, while building owners, insurers and the city council debated what steps were necessary, seemingly without any serious expectation that further major earthquakes were on the way. 

For Wellington the lessons of Christchurch should be an enormous red flag. Wellington is literally sitting on a time bomb if there is an earthquake of the magnitude experienced in Kaikoura. 

For commercial and residential building owners in Wellington it is a major dilemma that may have huge economic fallout. Undoubtedly there are building owners wishing they had sold up sooner, but that would not necessarily change the risk to Wellingtonians. 

The people of Wellington are exposed to this danger, perhaps more so than Christchurch was. For some Wellington homeowners the story is proportionally bad news. For all residents of Wellington the truth cannot be spun so easily after the last few weeks. The city is in line for more earthquakes, just as Christchurch will be one day soon. Only Christchurch is better prepared. 

The hard choices about whether a Christchurch commercial building was up to code where largely taken away in the February 2011 earthquake. For Wellington it’s a choice that is running out of time. The city must take the very hard decisions now, not in five years time. Otherwise the business and political leaders will be no better than those five years ago that thought they could push these decisions off into the future for economic reasons. 

When Wellington emergency services are pulling people from fallen buildings, how will those leaders respond? Perhaps like some in Christchurch who simply said it was unforeseen and it was now important to look to the future. A convenient answer that will be of little value to the people of Wellington, particularly knowing that they were forewarned. We all need to look to the recent past to see what is coming.

EQCfix and the mainstream media should not be the ones delivering this message. This message should come from our leaders. It would be far better that fewer people had to call on EQC and insurers if steps were taken in advance of a disaster. As a country, we need to accept that to survive we need to design better buildings and infrastructure that not just ‘performs well’, but fully withstands multiple events. The cost to the country is too high otherwise. One way or another, the money is going to get spent on this. Better it be done in advance, saving lives and livelihoods.  

Melanie Tobeck