My word, what a truly horrible afternoon. Since about 1.30pm – when I found out about today’s Christchurch earthquake – it has been a truly surreal afternoon watching on TV, listening the radio, following updates on Twitter and so forth as events have unfolded.

Latest updates say that 65 people have been confirmed dead, which is a horrifically huge number. I feel so incredibly deeply sorry for the people of Christchurch.

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  1. Now is a good time to cancel Puford, Western Link Road and all other major highway work to free up money to rebuild Christchurch.

  2. What impact will this have on the development of NZ cities? Does this mean the death of CBDs in favour of decentralised low-rise development that is naturally more resilient?

    Does it mean that we should be moving critical infrastructure out of the large cities? We can absorb a $5bn disaster in a small city but a $50bn disaster striking Auckland and taking much of the country’s critical infrastructure with it would cripple the country.

    Is there a need for more redundancy in our transport, electricity, and communications links? Christchurch is flat and apart from the bridges to the north and links to Banks Peninsula and Lyttleton it seems to have multiple redundant transport links in to the city. What if Auckland loses SH1 at the Bombay Hills, or Wellington loses SH1 at Paekakariki?

    It might be worth pausing all transport projects that aren’t well advanced until we know the full implications of the Christchurch disaster.

  3. Well Obi, for the CBD I would say the reverse actually…. It’s a chance to build the centre of ChCh as a real city not just a through route to various malls on the edges…. If you really want to take risk out of living then Wellington, not to mention Tokyo and every Californian city would need to be abandoned. It was the type of building that caused the problems not their organisation in a city. Properly built city buildings won’t kill in this sort of event, nor sink into the sludge like the sprawlers you seem to favour.

    You are right about redundancy. We might, for example, wonder if it is too wise to have all of Ak’s railway signalling controlled from extremely quake prone Wgtn? I do hope there is local redunancy for this plan. This sort event in Welly will be way way worse, the topography is so tricky; houses are just going to surf down hillsides.

    1. “for the CBD I would say the reverse actually”

      It looks like a modern multi-story hotel is about to collapse and will be a write off if it doesn’t. That means that any building can be destroyed by an earthquake… It might be designed to protect its occupants long enough for them to evacuate, but it’ll still need replacing. My point is that we can live with casualty-free mass destruction in a small regional city like Wanganui or an Auckland sub-center like Albany, but a similar event in Auckland CBD would likely be too serious for us to manage. If that is the case then should we be looking at doubling the number of jobs (and presumably the floor space) in the CBD? I suspect not.

      You’re right about railway signaling. As an IT person I’m thinking about a concentration of data centers in Auckland that could be distributed in to smaller cities to provide resilience but without impacting IT employment since most IT people don’t have to be located alongside servers. I don’t have a map of the country’s electricity grid to hand but I recall there are a few choke points which would have major consequences if they failed. But most of all I think it is nuts to have so much government activity concentrated in to a few blocks of Wellington… The national crisis center, Police HQ, Fire Service HQ, Defence Force HQ, Ministry of Health, and central region Police ops center aren’t more than a kilometer apart. That’s bad enough if there was an extended power cut, let alone a major earthquake.

      I’m certainly not proposing evacuation of cities or a complete elimination of risk. I think after the rescue efforts have run their course then we should take a look at the bigger issues around concentration of economic activity and critical infrastructure. We’ll be able to mitigate some risks through toughening and redundancy, but I suspect some of the risks are just too big already and we won’t want to make them even bigger.

      1. As someone in IT, you should recognise that crisis centres should be independent in their operations from all fixed-wire services including power and communications. Generators, HF radios, satellite phones.

        The EOC in the Beehive is reportedly spec’d to withstand anything short of a magnitude 10, and it’s highly desirable to have all the emergency services in close proximity to the central government EOC because it makes it easier to get all the key coordination personnel into the one place.

        You should stick to IT. Leave evaluation of emergency operations management to the professionals.

        1. “You should stick to IT. Leave evaluation of emergency operations management to the professionals.”

          I spent five years in charge of IT disaster recovery for one of the Australian state governments, including responsibility for the police, hospitals, and emergency services. I think that makes me one of the professionals. What are your qualifications?

          Our state crisis management center wasn’t in a basement under parliament. It was at the low rise police HQ in a campus environment on the edge of the state capital. If anyone had proposed moving it in to the CBD as part of an all-eggs-in-one-basket strategy then we would have thought them mad. I’ve been in to the Beehive “bunker” and it is a dated limited space with some very odd design features. It assumes as a philosophy that politicians are central to disaster response.

          After the Oklahoma City bombing, law enforcement cordoned off a large area of the city for some weeks while they gathered evidence and looked for body parts. If that happened at NZ’s Parliament then a 500m radius will take in the crisis management center, Defence HQ, Police HQ, Ministry of Health, Treasury, and Reserve Bank. A truck bomb at the US embassy could easily collapse the Police HQ across the road in a 1960s or 70s vintage 15 story office block. You might think that an easy walk between offices is critical to crisis management. Government agencies like to have proximity to parliament for reasons of prestige, as much as anything with the air traffic control people moving from Petone to a site a couple of hundred meters from the Beehive recently. But I think the country needs to look at this again.

        2. My qualifications? Nearly five years as a volunteer with the Fire Service, certified to CIMS4, currently a deployable comms/IT tech for an international disaster relief agency, and working towards membership of the BCI. So I do actually have a clue.

          You seem to think that there’s only one crisis management centre in the convenient vicinity of the Beehive. There’s not. And if you actually knew as much as you purport, you’d know that. You’d also know that it’s not how NCMC looks internally that determines if it can handle a massive earthquake.

  4. A big quake in Wellington would be catastrophic. Not only is it the seat of government and civil defence, but the DC power cable passes through there not to mention the interislander terminal for road and rail vehicles.

    1. The impact of Wellington’s forecast “big one” would be more severe for the loss of central government than anything else. The ferry terminal would be a nuisance, but a temporary facility could be constructed in a matter of weeks. WLG airport is insignificant. And the Cook Strait cable comes ashore well away from Wellington City. Having the Beehive vanish in a cloud of dust would not put the cable at great risk. It would be the demise of, potentially, nearly all elected representatives, the GG, and the Supreme Court that would hurt because there’s not much legislative provision for the government disappearing. Probably we’d default to a military state until the Queen could appoint a new GG, who could then handle the issue of appointing new ministers to take the offices associated with reconstruction. We would only need one surviving MP to be able to maintain rule of law.

  5. Problem is that we know cities are more than merely the sum of their parts, and the net effect of a city will not be there if we simply chop them into bits and spread them out. Even if you are right that we could significantly minimise risk by deurbanising that is merely like saying that there will be lower risk to flying if we do less of it. Statistically likely but not really achieving anything. Anyway what if it had been a Tsumami? Would you be saying no should live near the coast, or when a ship sinks, no one should go to sea? Life has risks, I’m sorry to be gloomy, but you could sit in your decentalised, backed-up bunker and still die of cancer…. A city of low rise low density sprawl of say 2 million people [where AK is heading in my life time] is no life whatsoever to me so I’ll take your risks thanks…..

    1. A risk such as a single aircraft crash, a ship sinking, or even a tsunami hitting a regional city has a manageable cost associated with it. The risk we need to avoid is a single event with unmanageable cost.

      Ballpark figures: The September earthquake cost around $5bn and this one is being talked about as being $6-8bn. It seems that only $1.5bn per event was re-insured… the rest comes from EQC reserves, government, and normal insurance (and therefore ultimately premiums). Auckland is almost four times the size of Christchurch. For a similar series of events centered around the CBD we might be looking at $40-50bn worth of cost with presumably the same $1.5bn reinsurance. Can our economy take a single $50bn hit? Do we want to double that potential cost by doubling the size of the CBD?

      Christchurch obviously had a lot of old brick buildings, seems to have a relaxed building code due to being thought of as a low earthquake risk area, and is apparently built on a swamp. Auckland is in a better position than that. But large modern office blocks are designed to save life by allowing columns to sway while beams buckle and twist and we might need to tear down and rebuild many or most buildings in the CBD after an earthquake, even if few lives are lost.

      1. EQC is reinsured for $3.3b, not $1.5b. They have to pay the first $1.5b, are reinsured up to $4.8b, then have to wear all costs above that.

        Auckland is not sitting atop seismic fault lines. The risk from major earthquakes is minuscule, and the risk of a major volcanic eruption is also very small. One-in-thousands-of-years small.

        What’s the long-term cost of decentralising Auckland, and the country? What economic impact from loss of network effects and agglomeration benefits? The costs of building infrastructure to service even more sprawl? I posit that, for the risk, it would be far, far more costly to do as you suggest than to encourage centralisation, milk the cow for all it’s worth, and carry a healthy contingency fund.

  6. Obi the dramatic footage is of the city centre but the low rise old and poorly built and unlucky buildings in the ‘burbs are also toast and are part of those figures…. sprawl is no answer to disaster risk. One other thing to note is that because of re-insurance most of the insurance money will actually come from offshore. We’ve already seen that from the Sept. quake it actually led to a weird positive balance of payment figure recently. Also remember Ak is not on a fault line, we are much more likely to suffer from a new Rangitoto arriving than a quake, and your brick and tile world won’t help you when a couple meters of ash falls from the sky.

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