Our Wellington

News | 22 February 2021

10 years on from the Christchurch quake

10 years on from the Christchurch quake – how are we doing in Wellington? For Derek Baxter, the city’s Civil Defence Controller, we've learnt a lot about our city and what’s beneath it. But many of us are experiencing a case of ‘earthquake amnesia'.

Collapsed buildings in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.

OPINION: This week we’re reminded it’s 10 years since the disastrous Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011. It’s a good time to pause to remember the 185 people who died in the quake and acknowledge the loved ones they left behind.

I’m sure we all remember the genuine horror and bewilderment we felt as news of the February quake came through. We knew Christchurch had been severely shaken by the big quake in September 2010 but most people thought that quake had been some sort of rogue event – after all, Canterbury wasn’t known as a seismic hotspot.

Wellington was supposed to be the city with the earthquake target on its back – we were the city always braced for the Big One.

Ten years on, that’s still the case – Wellington is the country’s major city most at risk of being hit by a destructive quake. Whereas the Canterbury quake fault lines were largely unknown to the general population, here, in Wellington, the fault lines are obvious - they define our city’s and region’s landscape.

Has Wellington learned anything from the Christchurch calamity? Generally yes – but this is not a time for complacency.

Collapsed buildings in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.

PHOTO: CHRISTCHURCH CITY COUNCIL

Since Christchurch in 2011, Wellington has been shaken by three big quakes, the most recent being the Kaikoura quake in November 2016. It’s important to remember they were all South Island quakes – the closest epicentre was about 80km away from Wellington. In other words they were by no means ‘direct hits’ – which was the case in Christchurch.

Regardless, they did a lot of damage in the Capital City – one modern building partially collapsed. It was one of at least 10 big commercial buildings that had to be demolished or still remain unusable. Many others were badly damaged but have since been repaired and strengthened. 

We have learnt a lot about our city and what’s beneath it. Scientists continue to learn and planners, engineers and decision makers are keeping close to this work and what it might mean for Wellington.  

On the positive side, over the past two decades hundreds of buildings around the city have been removed from the list of earthquake-prone buildings, and owners continue to strengthen their buildings as required by the legislation. Millions of dollars are also being spent by the City Council to strengthen the likes of the Town Hall, St James Theatre, the Central Library, and our social-housing complexes. 

The Council, along with the likes of Waka Kotahi/NZTA and KiwiRail, has also poured money into strengthening roads, retaining walls, tunnels and bridges, and Wellington Electricity worked with the Government to build seismic resilience into its work programme and pricing. CentrePort has spent millions repairing and upgrading the container terminal and other damaged sections of the waterfront. 

Earthquake damage in Wellington.

The Government also continues to enact legislation to toughen building laws – and we are now designing and constructing state-of-the-art resilient buildings – often with flexible base-isolated foundations that lessen the impact of ground shaking.

An obvious challenge for property owners in the Wellington area is the fact the cost of insurance has skyrocketed in the past decade – this is tough enough for the owners of commercial property or common-or-garden stand-alone houses in the suburbs – but it’s especially hard on owners of older apartments, typically in the CBD, who are facing massive insurance bills as well as strengthening costs. That’s why the Council is talking to the Government about possible mechanisms that might be able to lessen the financial burden.

One of the things that keeps me awake at night, in my role as the city’s Civil Defence Controller, is whether Wellingtonians are personally prepared enough for the Big One – or any other big emergency that could disrupt our lives.

In Wellington we like to think that we’re more savvy about how to deal with an earthquake – but I’m not sure that’s the case. We only have to think back to March last year – Wellingtonians were panic-buying toilet rolls and queuing for flour, just like so many others around the world, as Covid-19 took hold.

The St James Theatre as seen from Courtenay Place.

Millions of dollars have been spent by the City Council to strengthen the likes of the St James Theatre.

Our emergency-preparedness awareness tends to surge after a big quake or other emergency – but then it wanes.

Anecdotally I think the city’s in a complacency trough at the moment. After Christchurch and Kaikoura, sales of the Council’s 200 litre emergency water tanks soared – but now they're tailing off.

My admittedly unscientific polling of work colleagues and friends also reveals a worrying lack of preparedness at home – lots of people don’t have their own stocks of emergency drinking water, canned food, first-aid kits and other basic emergency necessities.

We’re also surprisingly casual about our household plans (where will you meet your family, flatmates or similar in the immediate hours after a big quake if your house is wrecked and cordoned-off?).

Wellington Civil Defence Controller Derek Baxter.

Derek Baxter says Wellingtonians' emergency-preparedness tends to surge after a big quake.

Not enough people have also thought hard about how they’ll get home if the trains and buses are out of action – do you have your sensible walking shoes, coat, water bottle and snacks under your desk, ready for a three or four-hour (at the minimum) walk to the Hutt or Porirua?

Maybe a lot of us are experiencing a case of ‘earthquake amnesia’? 

The fact that Covid-19 has dominated our lives over the past year has possibly made us forget – but the risk is still there – Rūaumoko doesn’t care for Covid.

I urge Wellingtonians not to be complacent – and to think seriously about their ability to respond to a big quake or major emergency. A good start is to check www.getprepared.nz

* Derek (Bax) Baxter is Wellington City Council's Civil Defence Controller.