In the aftermath of any major disaster, there is always a temptation to hold back from the public any information that could cause unnecessary fear. Those who advocate this approach calculate there is less possibility that traumatised people will panic if they are kept in the dark about potential dangers. As such, they will be better equipped to cope with, and recover from, their plight.
According to scientists from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, this theory held sway in the aftermath of Christchurch's Boxing Day 4.9-magnitude earthquake. A panel of four have told the royal commission of inquiry that information was withheld from the public on advice from social scientists who were worried about the city's collective mental health. In particular, the GNS declined to advise where a magnitude-six earthquake would strike were it to occur.
There were five or six obvious scenarios, Dr Kelvin Berryman said. One was directly under the city. On February 22, the scientists' worst fears were realised when a 6.3-magnitude quake hit Christchurch, killing 182 people. Dr Berryman maintained, however, that it had not been reasonable to give a warning of this after the Boxing Day jolt "because of the range of places where that magnitude six might occur. We didn't want to alarm unnecessarily."
A GNS colleague, Dr Terry Webb, added that the idea of a warning had been deemed "unhelpful". He said, however, that "they [the public] had a right to know, and that's why we readily talked about the possibility of a six, so that certainly wasn't hidden".
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The people of Christchurch were, therefore, told that there could be a sizeable aftershock, but not the areas where it was most likely to occur. Having emerged unscathed from the December 26 jolt in terms of lives lost, they were unaware that the worst-case scenario of the GNS provided no prospect of such a fortunate outcome being replicated. By any valid yardstick, this was wrong.
In general, the more information that is released to people in such situations, the better. It is, of course, necessary to avoid snap judgments and off-the-cuff analyses that could prompt unnecessary anguish and alarm. But the public has a right to hear rational evaluations of what lies ahead. If the precise locality, depth or timing of an earthquake cannot be predicted, it is well known that vulnerable areas can be identified and the likely magnitude of a quake forecast. Any available information on this should have been entrusted to the people of Christchurch.
The unnamed social scientists referred to by the GNS clearly feared a panic. Perhaps they worried there would be a mass flight from the city. That carries its own commentary on their view of people's ability to assess and react reasonably to such information. It also says something about their view of whether individuals should have the right to make their own judgment.
Perhaps worst of all, it is possible to say, in retrospect, that those who chose to leave the city after receiving such information from the GNS might well have made the right decision. Others may have stayed but elected to take precautions. Some, for example, may have deemed multi-storey buildings were no-go areas and no longer attended language classes in the CTV Building. Either way, lives could have been saved.
In response to the GNS revelations, Christchurch's Mayor, Bob Parker, said they would be the topic for "a good debate". Any such discussion would, however, be unlikely to extend far beyond the realm of social scientists.
Quite simply, people in such situations should receive the most complete possible evaluation of their plight and prospects.