Fran O'Sullivan: Sound quake strategy falls on deaf ears

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Thousands of damaged Christchurch houses could be recladded easily, says a team of engineers. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Thousands of damaged Christchurch houses could be recladded easily, says a team of engineers. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Wayne Brown has made an urgent plea that the Government review the extent to which the taxpayer might end up footing the bill for unnecessary costs in repairing quake-damaged Christchurch suburban residences. It seems to have fallen on wantonly deaf ears.

Brown - who is speaking for a 12-strong engineering review team that went down to Christchurch early last month - says thousands of timber-framed houses with damaged brick veneer cladding and tile roofs could be recladded easily with new weatherboards and corrugated iron roofs.

Timber-framed houses that have shifted off their foundations could easily be lifted, shifted and connected to the foundations ("in many cases for the first time").

And and even those constructed on concrete slabs on low-lying suburbs could be repositioned at least 800mm above ground level on to new timber piles, with connections designed to allow easy unbolting, re-levelling and reconnecting in the event of further ground-deforming seismic activity.

The upshot is that considerable time, money and heartache would be lessened if remedial on-the-ground action is taken instead of shifting people from their suburbs.

Well before Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and his departmental team sends in the bulldozers to demolish houses in at-risk suburbs, they should have at least done Brown the courtesy of reading the report which Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has wilfully ignored.

The fearsomely independent Brown is rather hot under the collar over just why Parker - or for that matter any of the relevant Cabinet ministers - has yet to respond to a series of cost-minimisation measures outlined in a five-page report he emailed to him more than a month ago.

Brown has plenty of street cred. He has chaired major infrastructure companies such as Vector and Transpower - where he had to lead action to remedy large infrastructure failures which occurred in each of those companies before he came on board.

So, you might expect Parker to pay some attention. But when he went down to Christchurch for the first week of March, he was there as one of a 12-strong team of senior New Zealand engineers servicing "Operation Suburb".

In essence, the team found flexible structures performed better than rigid ones in the seriously affected areas.

Heavy roof tiles and brick chimneys consistently failed; brick and other masonry veneers fell off in their thousands. Unreinforced blockwork was a contributor.

Many foundations were not tied to wall framing. Cliff-top houses were sited foolishly close to totally unretained stone scree cliffs, and sewerage lines should have been made flexible by converting to low-pressure reticulation.

The damage to Christchurch homes would have been reduced drastically - and with it the danger factor - if the building standards had not been so slack or ignored.

The team also found the complicated building codes of recent years were little use as they had simply not been followed.

The excellent performance of old timber-frame, corrugated iron houses that preceded the present building code proved this point.

Even before taxpayers were treated to the revelation that they face writing a cheque of up to $1 billion to bail out AMI Insurance policy-holders for their company's failure to organise sufficient reinsurance to cover their exposure to the Canterbury earthquake, Brown was also privately warning the powers-that-be.

He held that there could be "unexpected negative fiscal implications across the whole economy" as a result of the way in which the Earthquake Commission and the insurance industry were handling claims.

Assessors were in some cases offering payments to claimants that were higher than what they paid for the land and buildings.

The wording in replacement-cover contracts could lead to replacing failed brick veneers and roofs with the same products.

Brown could have expected that his track record - and the fact that he is also mayor of the Far North - would have ensured his report was at least read when it arrived on Parker's desk. But despite emailing it directly to him there has been no response.

Brown's report was also forwarded via an intermediary to Brownlee. Brownlee has had his head down this week getting legislation for the new Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) in place and has reportedly had far too many emails to answer them all.

It was reported yesterday that Brownlee and Cera's chief executive can now order demolitions and the requisition of land, and get information from any source for recovery work.

The fact that the Brown report is still unread is an obvious example of the potential for Brownlee and his new structure to create information bottlenecks.

If an independent authority had been created, Brown could have gone to Brownlee and asked him to kick the authority's shins for its failure to take account of expert opinion. Particularly where that advice is aimed at saving taxpayers' unnecessary costs.

Brownlee's insistence on being in charge works against reasonable outcomes.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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