Earthquake lessons: Are we ready for the Alpine Fault rupture?

by The Listener / 17 November, 2016
Shattered: after-effects of the 7.8-magnitude Kaikoura earthquake. Photo/1 News

When the earth was still thrashing and bucking two minutes after the shaking began early on Monday morning, many began to assume this was the Alpine Fault finally heaving into inevitable and overdue action.

Instead, it was a complex set of lesser faults unleashing the largest earthquake since 2009, the year a 7.8 magnitude quake hit in remote Fiordland, marking the end of a long period of relative seismic calm since the 1940s.

The magnitude 7.8 Kaikoura quake followed just a few weeks after the 7.1 rupture off East Cape in early September, which caused a small tsunami. It was three and a bit years after the magnitude 6.5 Cook Strait earthquake caused severe damage to the hamlet of Seddon and reminded Wellington of its vulnerability to seismic forces.

And it came just over six years after a previously unknown fault ruptured in a shallow 7.1 magnitude quake on the Canterbury Plains. That was christened the Greendale fault, and the early morning quake of September 4, 2010, turned out to be the first in a devastating 14,000-aftershock sequence that culminated in the deaths of 185 people, destroyed the centre of Christchurch, wrote off entire suburbs and shattered the mental health of thousands of residents.

We give these earthquakes names, we get to know their dimensions, they form part of our geological history. Those who have lived with them for the past six years in Christchurch have become amateur seismologists, adept at assessing the size and origin of aftershocks. Unfortunately for the people of Kaikoura, they, too, will probably become skilled at reading tremor size – because one thing we know from Christchurch is that aftershocks, and the awful pulses of adrenaline that they induce, will be part of their lives for a long time.

Finance Minister Bill English, being interviewed by a journalist this week when a 6.3 magnitude aftershock wobbled the base-isolated Beehive, smiled calmly and commented, “Well, we’ve got used to them, haven’t we.” It was a throwaway comment, of course, and it would be churlish to criticise him, but it served to pinpoint a disappointing lack of insight into the accumulating psychological and physiological effects of aftershocks on those who live with them day after week after month. If there is one thing that is utterly certain in this time of uncertainty and trauma, it is that following the horrific night of November 14, the people of Kaikoura and surrounding areas will never become “used” to earthquakes.

Indeed, New Zealanders should be no more “used” to earthquakes than Australians are to bush fires or Americans to hurricanes – the dangers are far too real for complacency. The question is, are we sufficiently prepared?

Hotel guests gather in a carpark in Wellington. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

On the night of the Kaikoura quake, it was obvious to anyone who experienced the long period of shaking that a massive rupture had occurred. In the immediate period after, confusion reigned. At 12.37am, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management tweeted that there was “no tsunami threat”. At 12.56am, it said the situation had changed and a tsunami was now “possible”. Not until 1.01am was the message definitive that the east coast of the South Island faced a tsunami threat. At 1.21am the message changed again to include the entire New Zealand east coast.

Tsunami sirens in Christchurch didn’t sound until about 2am, after the first wave had arrived on the northern east coast.

Ambiguity persisted. Luckily, we got away with it, but calls this week from the director of GeoNet, Ken Gledhill, for a 24/7 tsunami monitoring centre met with widespread support.

And then there was the emergency 111 service, which police advised in a 12.48am press release was “non-operational”, before cancelling that message 10 minutes later. When asked this week whether the 2011 Christchurch earthquake had prepared the Government for massive natural disasters, Prime Minister John Key replied, “We’ve got better at it.” But he has promised to ask questions about the 111 failure.

State Highway 1, north of Kaikoura. Photo/Getty Images

In the midst of the emergency response, it seems mean-spirited to focus on such lapses. It’s far more reassuring to know that in the heart of affected communities, neighbours have cared for one another, marae have opened their doors and those with resources and skills have reached out with generosity. Strong and active community links and the trust that still largely exists between strangers in this country – despite the despicable looting of Christchurch homes left empty while their occupants fled the tsunami risk – lie at the heart of our resilience and security as a society.

The aerial views of the fragile link previously known as State Highway 1 and the main trunk rail route – swallowed by the earth in many places and shunted onto the foreshore in others – vividly show the country’s vulnerability to severe infrastructure and economic disruption. The Kaikoura coast road and rail route is a particularly delicate thread between mountains and sea, but New Zealand has many similarly thin lifelines, as we saw this week when Wellington was completely cut off by flood waters. In times of calm and comfort, it’s tempting to penny-pinch on investment in vital infrastructure. This week is yet another reminder that expenditure avoided upfront can ultimately lead to much higher cost when disaster strikes. Strong core infrastructure and strong communities – including well-prepared households equipped to survive for a time without power, running water and supermarket access – are the insurance policies that this disaster-prone country can’t afford to be without.

And speaking of insurance, we can only hope that the people of Kaikoura and severely damaged townships such as Waiau will not have to endure the staggering inefficiency, waste, delay and – in many cases – sheer incompetence of the dual system of EQC and private insurance coverage that has been suffered by the residents of Christchurch.

Waiau Lodge Hotel. Photo/Getty Images

Six years on, there are still empty sections where family homes have yet to be rebuilt; some 7000 houses fixed by EQC have to be re-repaired because of sloppy work or inadequate structural analysis; some homes have had to be re-repaired three or four times. In no small measure the failure of the national disaster insurance scheme to do what it was intended to do – to efficiently restore people’s properties and thus enable the recovery of communities – is behind the huge increase in demand for mental health services in the city.

Sadly, this massive earthquake has come before long-overdue reform of EQC has been completed. The Government announced the review of EQC four years ago. A reform bill is not expected until next year. Much of the discussion has gone on inside a black box, with Treasury refusing to even release submissions made in response to its 2015 discussion document. There’s little sign of any serious attempt to plumb the experiences of Christchurch property owners who have deep first-hand knowledge of the system.

However, on Tuesday EQC and the private insurers set up a collaborative “task force” to share information and avoid waste and duplication as they deal with what will be an extremely complex insurance event, with thousands of landslips preventing access to properties and claims likely from areas as far-flung as Auckland and Timaru.

It’s an encouraging sign that lessons have been learnt from Christchurch. Which is good, because the Alpine Fault is still overdue.

This article was first published in the November 26, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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