Earthquake preparedness and disaster recovery: Lessons from Christchurch, New Zealand
Update: my e-correspondent from New Zealand, Nigel Foster, points out to us that in 1945, New Zealand created the Earthquake and War Damages Commission to address various matters concerning earthquake disaster preparedness and response -- in the US, the US Geological Survey does some of this, but responsibility for response is a mixture of federal, state, and local government and typically states and localities lag in action.
In the summer of 2015 the New Yorker published a piece about Seattle/The Puget Sound's vulnerability to a disastrous earthquake ("The Really Big One: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when") and the relative lack of preparedness activities (cf. Los Angeles, e.g., "Los Angeles will have the nation's toughest earthquake safety rules," Los Angeles Times). From the LAT article:
Under the law, property owners will have seven years to fix wood apartments and 25 years to fix concrete buildings. The city has already identified about 13,500 apartment complexes that officials suspect need repairs. A Times investigation in 2013 found more than 1,000 older concrete structures — including landmark buildings in downtown, Hollywood and Westwood — that require close scrutiny for retrofitting.There was a lot of pushback in social media to the New Yorker article, which ran a follow up piece, "How to stay safe when the Big One comes," with some recommendations ("bolt your house to the foundation, Know your neighbors," etc.).
Owners will be required to find a way to pay for the work, which can range from $60,000 to $130,000 for wood apartments and millions of dollars for large concrete towers.
While renters and owners remained concerned about their costs, there has been a growing recognition from both groups that retrofitting was necessary.
“We want the buildings to be safe,” Martha Cox-Nitikman of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles said earlier this week. “But we need to figure out how we get people there without ruining businesses.”
The City Council is still mulling exactly how the retrofit costs will be shared. The law currently allows owners to increase monthly rents by up to $75 to pay for required earthquake retrofits, but both sides say they do not think Los Angeles renters can afford such a hike.
The city's housing department has suggested that renters and owners pay for the retrofit on a 50-50 basis, allowing owners to charge a monthly maximum surcharge of $38 to pay for the seismic retrofit.
Unreinforced masonry was responsible for dozens of deaths in the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Seattle has a similar building stock. (Martin Hunter/Getty Images)
The Seattle Times has just published a set of articles about Christchurch and what happened there ("An earthquake worse than the ‘Big One’? Shattered New Zealand city shows danger of Seattle’s fault"), and lessons for Seattle ("Lessons from Christchurch: 4 key ways Seattle can prepare for earthquake devastation").
Christchurch too lagged on requiring earthquake retrofitting before the 2011 quake, and this contributed significantly to the death and injury toll there. Buildings that were retrofitted or built with earthquake protection in mind mostly did not fail.
It's easier for Southern California to put earthquake preparation at the forefront of planning because they frequently experience earthquakes.
-- The ShakeOut Scenario (for Southern California), US Geological Survey
It's harder for communities and states that have less direct and less frequent experience with earthquakes, especially because for the most part, politics is about warding off change and response for as long as possible, although Oregon and Portland tend to be ahead of Washington State and Seattle when it comes to future planning for earthquake disasters.
Saving buildings and saving lives with new measures. Another interesting finding from Christchurch is that even though many buildings retrofitted or newly constructed with earthquake protection did not fail in terms of loss of life, the buildings were still so damaged that they had to be demolished anyway.
New Zealand is exceptional in that it has a basic earthquake insurance program in place where most house owners participate, but even so the fund has mostly been depleted because of the 2011 earthquake, and were the country more populated and dense, insurers could have been wiped out.
Some civil engineers suggest therefore that a new standard for earthquake protections be set for new construction and retrofitting focused on buildings staying functional and usable, because the cost of disaster recovery when most buildings must be replaced is too high ("Seismic resilience means much more than good building codes," LinkedIn).
Lessons for disaster planning. Of course, these lessons are relevant to other elements of disaster planning, including from storms and the impact of climate change on sea levels. Such as in Florida ("Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun," A Sharp Increase In 'Sunny Day' Flooding"," and "Intensified by Climate Change, 'King Tides' Change Ways of Life in South Florida," New York Times).
Notably, a few years ago the North Carolina Legislature voted to reject planning recommendations to address sea level rise along North Carolina's coast ("North Carolina Bans Use of Latest Science on Rising Sea Level," ABC News), which isn't an example of proactive planning.