Ann Brower: What's the price of pain?

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As the Government proposes new building standards for earthquakes, Christchurch survivor Ann Brower pleads for action now to avoid another tragedy

Ann Brower was rushed to hospital after being freed from the crushed bus in Colombo St, Christchurch. Photo / Martin Hunter
Ann Brower was rushed to hospital after being freed from the crushed bus in Colombo St, Christchurch. Photo / Martin Hunter

It's not normal to feel your pelvis break. It's not normal to be crushed smaller, smaller, smaller, until you can shrink no smaller. It's not normal to feel kilo after kilo, tonne after tonne land on your left hip and to wonder when the weight might stop falling. It's not normal to be dug out from under a collapsed building by strangers and taken to hospital in the back of another stranger's truck. It's not normal to plead with those strangers who are risking their lives to save yours to please get the others first, only to find out that there are no others. It's not normal to discover you're the only one left.

Preventable deaths in the streets in a country like New Zealand are not normal. Even in an earthquake. Death and injury on the scale of February 22, 2011 must never happen again.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment is circulating a document proposing changes to building codes. The Government proposes to give owners of known quake-prone buildings (at present meeting less than 34 per cent of code, most are unreinforced masonry) 15 years to bring them up to 34 per cent of code or face compulsory demolition.

The royal commission recommended five years. Why bother having a royal commission if we don't heed their advice? We live on the Pacific Ring of Fire, as last week's 8.0 quake in the Solomons reminds us. Fifteen years is too long.

So far, discussion of the ministry proposals has focused on the cost of upgrading the buildings, which will be borne by the owners, councils, and the taxpayers. The Auckland Council and building owners say they can't afford to fix these buildings (Rudman, NZ Herald, Feb 6, 2013). I think, as a nation, we can't afford to delay fixing them. In my experience, the social cost of delaying reinforcement is far dearer than the cost of a preventive upgrade. As we learned on February 22, the cost of not reinforcing is human pain.

Two questions are missing from the quake-prone building discussion:

What is the human cost of not reinforcing earthquake-prone buildings? Who pays that cost?

In the case of unreinforced masonry buildings, we all know that it's not the building owner and the occupants who bear the lion's share of the risk, it's passers-by, on the footpath and on the street. On February 22, unreinforced quake-prone buildings killed 35 in the street, and four inside buildings. Further, if it's unacceptable for employers to allow known hazards in the workplace, why should we allow employers to operate in buildings known to be dangerous in earthquakes?

The ministry document should also ask the costs of not reinforcing buildings, because they might well far exceed the cost of reinforcing. That's if you could put a price on human pain. Pain, of course, is hard to quantify. But it is standard practice in cost benefit analysis of regulation to consider health costs of failing to regulate something, be it drinking water or buildings. The ministry fails to consider health costs - who pays those health costs, who bears the pain, and who reaps the capital gains from unreinforced buildings.

The question of how those costs and risks are distributed is crucial. We the public bear all the risk of delaying earthquake reinforcement, as it was employees and passers-by who were crushed by collapsing buildings. It's also us, ACC levy-payers, who bear the cost of the delays, as we pay to clean up the mess. We all paid well over $100,000 in my post-quake health costs alone - multiple surgeries, months in hospitals, years of physio, half a year off work, reduced productivity, the list goes on. We don't get a share of capital gains and building owners don't compensate the dead and injured. This is called privatising profit and socialising risk. It's also called a subsidy. We pay, they profit.

If the Government, through ACC, did not absorb all the cost of risk of death and injury from dangerous buildings on the Ring of Fire, these buildings would be too expensive to insure and they would have to be brought up to code or brought down. In absorbing all liability for the human costs, ACC (read taxpayers) subsidises owners of dangerous buildings.

In time, something will happen to these dangerous buildings. Either we'll pay to reinforce them now or they'll crumble in another earthquake later. Whether it's reinforcement costs now or health costs later, either way, we'll pay.

So let's pay dollars now. Let us never again pay for a known risk with human pain. Pain, too, has a cost. But we never hear much about pain because most of the injured cannot and will never speak of such things.

Finance aside, risk is a part of a life well lived. We accept it every day. But there is a difference between accepting a known and preventable risk (like faulty brakes in a car, or unreinforced buildings on a major thoroughfare like Colombo St) and less known and less preventable hazards (like a car accident where everyone tried their best, but something just went wrong). In delaying requiring reinforcements to dangerous buildings, the ministry is accepting a known and preventable risk. It is like accepting that 8 per cent to 13 per cent of all cars on New Zealand roads have faulty brakes. We know they will fail. We just don't know when. And we don't know whom they will hurt. But they will hurt someone, somewhere, sometime. It's one thing to decide on an acceptable level of risk for yourself, as a building owner. It's a very different thing to decide on an acceptable level of risk that you're willing to push on to everyone else.

In February, we on Colombo St bore all the risk. My leg and hand bear the scars. Most other people touched by falling masonry bear worse scars or were crushed to death. It's lily-livered and downright unconscionable to continue blithely passing known and preventable risks on to others. I fully support the move to upgrade quake-prone buildings to 34 per cent of current building code, as the ministry is proposing. But the 15-year time scale is too long.

Until someone fronts up to bear the costs, we all bear the risk. That is not fair. If no one fronts up, these buildings are a risk we cannot afford and they should come down. For goodness sake, at least follow the royal commission's recommendation of bringing the precariously perched parapets and chimneys to 50 per cent of code. California does it by replacing masonry parapets with lightweight plastercast. The ministry rejected this royal commission recommendation.

At some point, we need to 'fess up that it's not normal for lots of people to die in an earthquake in a country like New Zealand. Even if we take the 146 deaths from CTV, Pyne Gould and rockfall out of the death toll to look only at the 39 deaths from buildings known to be quake-prone, then a comparison of Christchurch to California is sobering:

Loma Prieta (1989, San Francisco), was a magnitude 6.9 quake at 5.04pm on a Friday, affecting the San Francisco Bay area population of about five million. The death toll was 62 (eight killed by masonry, 42 killed on the Nimitz bridge in Oakland).

Northridge (1994, Los Angeles), was a magnitude 6.7 quake with a peak ground acceleration of 1.7G (not far off our 2.2G), at 4.31am. The LA area has a population of more than seven million, with about two million in close proximity to the epicentre in the San Fernando Valley. The death toll was 42 (not including heart attacks and suicides).

California stopped allowing the construction of masonry buildings in 1933. Another state law in 1986 required seismic retrofitting of all as-yet-unreinforced buildings.

Christchurch had only 400,000 people. Yet our death toll was comparable from known quake-prone buildings alone. We punched well above our weight in predictable and preventable deaths.

The only earthquake in a developed country with a death toll on par with Christchurch was that of Kobe, Japan in 1995, where the vast majority of deaths were from, guess what, poorly reinforced masonry tile roofs on homes. Japan has since changed its roof building codes.

The royal commission estimates there are between 15,000 and 25,000 quake-prone buildings across New Zealand. Too many to bother counting, I suppose. Similarly, the doctors at Christchurch Hospital said I had six to eight breaks in my pelvis. The exact number wasn't important, apparently, as all it takes is one break to be in pretty bad shape.

The royal commission revealed that the 8 per cent to 13 per cent of the buildings in New Zealand are in pretty bad shape, and the ministry proposes delays. If the experience of Christchurch is any guide, delays mean never. The building that crushed me and killed 12 others had been tagged as dangerous and due for reinforcement since 1982.

Deaths in the streets on the scale of Christchurch are not normal. It wasn't the earthquake that killed everyone but me on the Colombo St bus. It was the building, its lack of regulation, lack of structural support and lack of a fence. It's not okay. It wasn't bad luck. She will not be right. We can forgive. But let us not forget.

Next time you walk down your local High St, look up and ask yourself where you will run when the next earthquake hits. Because it will.

Please. Let's fix the dangerous buildings or bring them down, now. Not in 15 years' time. Let us never again subsidise risk with human pain.


Ann Brower is a senior lecturer of public policy at Lincoln University. She is the author of the book Who Owns The High Country (2008: Craig Potton). She's also the only survivor of the number 3 bus that was crushed on Colombo St on February 22, 2011.

- NZ Herald

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