Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan: We have to learn from Japan

A mannequin's hand sticks out of rubble left by Japan's devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Photo / Michael Dickison
A mannequin's hand sticks out of rubble left by Japan's devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Photo / Michael Dickison

In Japan they know an earthquake is coming before they feel it. They are warned by a text message sent to every cell phone within the affected area.

Sometimes the alert gives just a few seconds notice of the thundering quake bearing down on them. Sometimes it's as much as a minute. But that warning can be enough to save lives. It may give you enough notice to pull boiling oil off the stove, stop motorists driving over a bridge, or get school kids under their desks.

New Zealand, that is not the kind of warning system your Government's planning to buy for you. You are going to get the No Frills version. And you're not going to get it in a hurry.

Don't expect to be given an early warning of an approaching quake like they get in Japan. The version we're getting will only warn you that an earthquake has already happened - in case you briefly slipped into a coma and missed the shaking - and that a tsunami might be coming.

The Government will tell you we can't afford something as flash as Japan's. Don't be fooled by that argument. Yes, the Japanese system is expensive because it's the most advanced in the world. It cost a billion dollars. But California's trying a similar system and it's far more affordable, priced at as little as $33 million.

If we spent as much as California, it'd cost each of us less than $8 to install and $4 a year to maintain. I'm good with that. It's a lot less than the around $1000 the previous owners of my house spent installing a burglar alarm, and that was just to protect their stuff, not their lives.

An earthquake early warning system isn't a luxury item. It's a necessity. Given we live in a quake-prone country and given it's accepted we're experiencing a period of increased geological activity, this system is pretty much the national shopping list equivalent of toilet paper - sure, you can put that back on the shelf to save a few dollars, but it's not going to be pretty later on.

It should, in fact, have been top of our shopping list after the 2011 Christchurch quake killed 185 people. By that stage, Japan had the system for four years. But our Government's only getting around to it now, and instead of acting with urgency, it's browsing the market for something it can afford. The delivery date is an estimated 18 months away. Let's hope the next big quake schedules its arrival after that.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, complaining of our lack of world-class warning technology, when quite frankly we're not even getting the basics right.

The list of failures in the wake of the Kaikoura quake is long and alarming. There was early mis-measurement of the quake as 6.5 on the Richter scale, which put it at 89 times less powerful than it actually was. For some of us, that's the difference between rushing for the hills and going back to bed. There was the Civil Defence tweet that told us "there is no tsunami threat to New Zealand" just before the 2m tsunami arrived in Kaikoura - thankfully at low tide. There was the failure in allowing Wellington CBD to open for business within 36 hours of the shaking - since then around 40 sites have closed for inspection - as if the CTV building's collapse taught us nothing.

We dodged a bullet with this quake. It struck in the middle of the night without major loss of life.

We said the same thing about the Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, and look what happened next.

- Herald on Sunday

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Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan is a thirty-something trying very hard to avoid growing up. So far it’s working, except for the husband, the mortgage and the proper job. She lives between Auckland and Wellington. When she’s not writing for the Herald on Sunday, she co-hosts TV3’s 7pm current affairs programme Story.

Read more by Heather du Plessis-Allan

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