Saturday, February 26, 2011

Don't forget New Zealand's plight

The tragic earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week continues to reverberate through that country. The death toll is now almost certain to top 300, and may exceed 400. New Zealand is a small country, so that's the equivalent of the USA losing Los Angeles in an earthquake that killed between 20,000 and 30,000 of our citizens.

The city of Christchurch may never fully recover from the earthquake. The Guardian reports:

One third of the buildings in central Christchurch were so badly damaged in last week's earthquake they may need to be demolished, authorities in New Zealand have warned, as the death toll from the country's worst-ever disaster reaches 145, with 200 still missing.

The city's central business district will take several months to recover, earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee said, adding that "most of the services, in fact all of the services that are offered in the CBD, will need to relocate elsewhere".

Damaged buildings will need to be bulldozed and rebuilt "so that people can have confidence about coming back into the area to transact any business that's here", he added. One in three of the central city's buildings were severely damaged in the quake and must be demolished, according to earthquake engineer Jason Ingham.

The stark warning came as New Zealand's prime minister, John Key, said the quake was the country's worst disaster to date. "This may be New Zealand's single-most tragic event," he said.

. . .

A multinational team of more than 600 rescuers from New Zealand, the UK, the US, China, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico and Australia continued scouring the city today but recovered only bodies.

Their efforts were hampered by a number of fresh aftershocks which sent masonry from a number of unstable buildings tumbling. So far only six quake victims have been formally named.

There's more at the link.

The question, of course, is whether Christchurch should be rebuilt. The Brisbane Times reports:

No one knows when, or if, the big banks, law firms, retailers, hotels, insurance companies, convention centres, arts establishments and scores of smaller businesses and restaurants might rebuild or reopen.

"The central business district is going to be out of action for a long time," chamber of commerce head Peter Townsend said yesterday, adding that the entire business centre might have to be relocated. "Frankly, it's a huge mountain to climb. It's simply not going to be the same as it has been in the past."

Tourism accounts for 15 per cent of Christchurch's economy, much of it from travelling Australians, but the airport is crowded now by tourists and residents trying to get out.

. . .

New Zealanders were told by their government yesterday that the cost of Christchurch's recovery will be more than $NZ10 billion [over US $7.5 billion]; a staggering bill for a national population of 4 million.

. . .

As the ground beneath the feet of Christchurch's residents continues to tremble and buck with regular aftershocks, the fear lurking in almost every conversation is that something more than buildings and streetscapes and jobs has been destroyed.

Somewhere between the determined confidence of the ubiquitous mayor, former TV personality Bob Parker ("we are all in this together and we'll come through it together") and the despair of young mother Heather Tewani, her house flattened and living in an emergency shelter at a large school, her children scattered among relatives across the South Island ("I just don't know what happens now"), it is possible to deduce a widespread loss of faith in life in an earthquake zone.

It is not simply the wrecked city centre. Beyond, thousands of suburban homes are destroyed, broken, cracked and bedevilled by thick grey mud squeezed at huge pressure from the bowels of the earth by the force of a rupturing fault line that was all but unknown six months ago.

"It's like living on a knife edge," says Caroline Jackson, a finance officer now living with her two young children in a motel because her house is split in two.

"I was brought up here and I don't want to leave. Before this, I always felt safe in Christchurch," she said. "It's always been known that Wellington [the New Zealand capital hundreds of kilometres to the north] is tentatively earmarked for the big one. But not here.

"But now, after the first big one here last September and now this . . . "

Once again, more at the link.

In per capita terms, that rebuilding cost is extreme. It amounts to almost US $1,900 for every man, woman and child in New Zealand - probably triple or quadruple that for each individual taxpayer. Given that sort of cost, I'm afraid I'd be very much in favor of abandoning the city and rebuilding it elsewhere, or encouraging employers and residents to relocate to other cities and towns. After all, no matter whether they rebuild in a more earthquake-resistant way or not, they're guaranteed to have more earthquakes! Whatever they spend now to rebuild will have to be spent again at some stage in the future, perhaps spread out over a longer period for less costly repairs . . . but it will have to be spent again. That being the case, why not 'bite the bullet' and pay those involved to move to safer areas, thus avoiding those future costs? It'll be cheaper to do so in the long run, I'm sure.

I feel the same way about earthquake-prone areas elsewhere (e.g. California). I see no point whatsoever in insuring buildings against damage you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, will come one day. Likewise, why build in a hurricane-prone area (e.g. Florida or the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico) when you know, beyond question, that one day a hurricane will hit your house? I can't understand why insurers bother to cover such buildings at all. I'd much rather say to people that if they want to throw their own money away, sure, they can build in such areas; but if they want loans to build, and insurance cover, they've got to choose safer locations.



Kevin said...

As a Christchurch resident I agree, I am currently thinking seriously about leaving, probably to Australia. The problem with moving the city or moving to other parts of New Zealand is that all of the country is at least as threatened by earthquakes. Take for instance Wellington, the capital, which is literally built right on top of a potentially active fault line.

Anonymous said...

Adding geologic insult to injury, as it were, some geologists are worried that this might be a sign that the volcanoes on the peninsula near Christchurch are becoming rather less extinct/dormant than has been assumed.

Old NFO said...

This is a truly sad story, and no really good answers to the potential for a repeat.

FrankC said...

You can't know if there will be a repeat, but the folks there now need help. Your local Salvation Army website will take donations to help NZ people in their hour of need, AND it's tax deductible. Do it.

goodkarma04 said...

I wonder about your comments about not building in unsafe areas. What area is truly safe from floods, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes or other disasters? I live on the east coast of Florida, and we have been impacted by hurricanes. Yes there will be damage over time, but when is the risk considered too great? The upside of hurricanes is that there is time to evacuate in case of a major threat.

Cybrludite said...

We got a lot of this in the New Orleans area after Katrina. The answer here is that until the Mississippi shifts west to Morgan City, New Orleans has to be where it is unless you want to make it unprofitable to export Midwestern grain to the world. There's also the issue of replacing the quarter of America's oil refining facilities which are located nearby. I'm afraid I'm not up enough on New Zealand's geography to say if Christchurch is as irreplaceable for them as New Orleans is for us. I do recall reading that it's been something like 16,000 years since the fault in question last let go. If so, then it might be a safe bet to rebuild once the aftershocks settle down. After all, the Bering Strait was a land bridge the last time this fault let go...