Fran O'Sullivan: NZ too slow to learn from quakes

It's time New Zealand dropped its famed "number eight wire" mentality and "she'll be right" attitude, and opted for professionalism when it comes to enforcing building standards.

Just five years on from the disastrous February 2011 earthquake which devastated the Christchurch CBD, what lessons have really been learnt?

Conflicting tsunami warnings and a 111 system that did not work properly are just the outward manifestations of a civil defence system that is too amateurville for the seismically challenged land we live in.

The Government is now calling for technical investigations into the failure of relatively new buildings in Wellington.

But surely these technical investigations should have happened before now - particularly after the swarm of earthquakes in Seddon in 2013 which rattled the capital.

There was a terrible sense of deja vu in watching new Wellington mayor Justin Lester this week prattle on about how there were no safety concerns in the CBD.

All the while as increasing numbers of buildings were being cordoned off and declared unsafe.

Lester heads a council which initially tried to keep secret the buildings around the inner city and suburban townships that were said to be earthquake prone.

Too many of them still require strengthening. But central government continues to allow Wellington City to manage the process, even when the chances are that it is central government that will be stumping up taxpayer cash in the event of a significant shake.

I was in Christchurch on February 22, 2011 when that quake hit. The intensity was remarkable; the vibrations felt like a mass attack of jackhammers on the ground around me.

It was different to the 7.8 (on the Richter scale) earthquake which struck at 12.02am on Monday in North Canterbury.

This very large earthquake has been described as having the power of 400 atom bombs. It is fortunate that it was the six North Canterbury and Marlborough faults that were affected - not the main Wellington fault which bisects the capital city.

Christchurch was also lucky in that it was mainly built on a plain. The airport and roads were sufficiently stable that provisions could be brought in. But that rebuild is only 60 per cent complete.

There will now be a contest for resources as the main South Island transport link is rebuilt and defective Wellington buildings are removed.

What is a pity is that CentrePort is not a listed company, as it would have had to make much more full disclosure about the vulnerability of newer commercial buildings on reclaimed port land.

This desperate need for professionalism is not confined to earthquake readiness.

In 2001 the Government decided to purchase 105 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) for $653 million.

In April last year, the Defence Force revealed that in more than a decade, just one tenth of New Zealand's LAVs had ever seen action.

It doesn't take much imagination to recognise how that $600m of wasted expenditure could have been better deployed to professionalise our civil defence capability.

Public attention is fickle.

But while we are still focused on earthquake swarms, let's please develop a new professional rapid response capability, 111 systems that work and good infrastructure.

Better that than reverting to default status and moving on.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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