Lessons for Wellington

Speech – A Summary of the Forum by Fran Wilde   (Chair, GWRC)


The topic of this forum is Organisational Effectiveness in Times of Seismic Risk. We’re seeking good ideas, anchored in other people’s experience and reality – ideas that will help our various organisations to be effective in their own delivery and in assisting others, before and after a seismic event.

Scientists believe that a major event on the Wellington fault will recur perhaps every 750 years, with the most recent rupture 300 years ago. So maybe we’ve got a bit of time, maybe we haven’t. Let’s hope we do.

In the Wairarapa, where a magnitude 8 event seems to be the likely number – a little bigger than Wellington – the return period is 1200 years. And the most recent big earthquake was in 1855. So there’s a sporting chance that it won’t happen again in our lifetime. But as we’ve seen in Christchurch and in Japan, ignoring risk doesn’t make it go away – it pays to prepare.

Thanks to R Moore for this imageLet’s look at the Wellington fault and what’s expected from a major quake here. Lateral and vertical movement will be similar to what happened in Canterbury, with all the accompanying impacts of liquefaction and because we are hilly, we’ll also be dealing with landslides. Notwithstanding that, most our houses are timber with corrugated iron roofing, not brick and masonry. Most of the new buildings in Wellington CBD are well designed and well-grounded, some with base-isolated bearings. Notably, these safer buildings are mainly government ones.

The bad news is that our potential problems after an event of the same size and depth as Canterbury are much more severe. We know that many of our CBD buildings are not seismically sound and the construction density in the CBD means that during the event, as well as building collapse, a massive volume of glass will be spewed into the streets. And much of the Wellington CBD and Petone and Hutt will liquefy.

We expect significantly more fatalities and injuries than occurred in Christchurch. We can also expect serious fires (as noted by Bill Butzbach of the NZ Fire Service), because of our reticulated gas system and compact wooden housing. It’s worth noting that the fires following Japan’s Kobe earthquake resulted in about the same number of fatalities as the quake itself.

In Wellington’s CBD where about 70,000 of us work each day, we depend on key infrastructure passing through the narrow Kaiwharawhara fault. There could be significant damage to these ‘lifelines’. Our topology is an issue. Should an event occur on a week day, access routes could be cut off for tens of thousands of workers and emergency and relief services may be unable to get through to stranded people. Wellington’s CBD area at sea-level faces major liquefaction and the danger of Tsunami – particularly if we have a subduction earthquake event close to our shores.

Masterton earthquake damage 1942. Thanks Geonet.org.nz for this image.By way of example, the 1855 Wairarapa quake generated ten metre waves. A subduction quake – like Japan had this year – would be much bigger, with massive water displacement. Effective evacuation plans are crucial – we’ll need to reach higher ground – fast.

In terms of recovery, restoration of essential services will take longer than it did in Christchurch because of the nature of our topography. Current estimates for supply to be restored for bulk water, maybe not fully, but intermittently, are about 40 – 90 days for water and waste water. Local networks may take longer; 20 days for electricity because you can string up aerial lines, and around 40 for gas.

Cellphone towers and other services atop buildings could take some time to restore.

As regards cell phone towers and transmitters, many are on the top of buildings, so they may not be accessible for a while. And refilling generators could pose a problem. It could take 180 days for rail to be restored, 120 days for road services, 10 days for sea and 5 for air. The cavalry won’t be arriving in a hurry.

In Christchurch, Alan Bollard tells us that half the banking services were open by the end of the week. Here in Wellington, and particularly in the CBD and in other areas that have suffered liquefaction, tsunami, or perhaps major landslide, under current circumstances – assuming we do nothing, it could be much longer for retail and business services to get up and running. That is apart from people being rescued which is, you know, the biggest consideration for us.

In saying all that, I have to say that this has been an astonishingly positive seminar.

It’s been a tribute to humanity and to collectivism and I don’t want to dwell on the eminently depressing side. There was much crossover in different sessions today, so having given you a kind of snapshot of status quo, I want to try to pick up on some of the key themes.

Planning is crucial to building resilience. Bruce Glavovic of Massey University’s Disaster Research Centre reminds us that it’s too late after the event. We must make wise decisions beforehand. For organisations, whatever type, strong and flexible business continuity plans (or BCPs) are needed.

Telstra Clear’s Alan Freeth said, “Accept that an event can happen” – that’s useful. Pre-event, he said, some people thought the back-up plan was a way of extracting more money from them. Business Continuity Plans (BCPs), he said, must be based on reality and take account of human behaviour – great advice. Part of BCP is a need to look at physical infrastructure. Richard Ballantyne is building to 100% of code – well done Richard – and Ballantynes have also realised the importance of staff knowing how safe their environment is, and what to do in an event.

Geoff Bascand from the NZ Fire Service and others spoke of the lessons learned from the first earthquake. One aspect that struck me and I know many businesses did this: setting up robust remote access facilities for staff that also helped them through the second quake on February 22, 2011.

Another thing is the aftershocks – that’s one of the biggest things we’ve realised from Christchurch. It is not just one event. The aftershocks – they go on for a long time. Something else to think about: small businesses may not have all the capacity to do all this type of BCP and may need some help. That’s something we as a community need to think about.

Now let’s consider local government. Roger Sutton said it’s critical that local government makes hard calls – starting with the obvious area of building regulations. Helen Anderson of BRANZ suggested identification of earthquake prone buildings is a real concern. As a result of Christchurch, Wellington’s Territorial Authorities (TAs) are being asked if they’re speedy and stringent enough in their approach to earthquake prone buildings. Roger has posed the question “is local government being stringent enough in its approach, not just to the region’s buildings, but to its own buildings?” I think the answer from some of our speakers, and certainly from me, is a resounding “no” on both counts.

With Canterbury raising consciousness around this issue for Wellington, perhaps this is an area where central government could help out by raising the bar in terms of definitions, policy approaches, and timing. I suspect there would be significant support for change of this nature.

Urban design hero Ian Athfield makes a plea for good urban design and spatial planning for Wellington, dealing with urban and rural areas as one, not as individual units. An editorial comment – governance is a pressing issue for Wellington. No local government entity has the legal mandate to execute regional spatial planning at present. It’s one of Roger’s (CERA) hard calls for local government, because it involves saying no and making choices, and some legal substance is called for.

Moving on, another planning responsibility for local government is infrastructure provision. Notably, this is carried out in partnership with the private sector. Both Helen Anderson and David Middleton (of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce) touch on this. David talks about roads and other vulnerable lifelines, and a related area, supply chain robustness.

Lifeline restoration and recovery times for city services in Wellington could be described as work-in-progress. I think we’d all agree that the timings indicated, which are the current consensus, are just not acceptable for our community. Let’s look at water, which is a basic necessity. Even if a building is okay, it’s not OK to occupy it if there is no water in the pipes. Things might be okay for a day or so, as people use bottled water for drinking – but it’s not going to work for us in the long-term. So we’re investigating how to mitigate those 40 or 50 days with no bulk supply – by increasing reservoirs around the region for example. While the extra reservoirs won’t replace the bulk supply, they may give residents sufficient water to refill their containers.

Roads – Four months to restore road access! We have just the two big main roads out of Wellington. Four months is too long. Transmission Gulley – which is now at least going through the planning and consenting process – will help. To me that was always about route reliability. But, the Gully is not sufficient on its own. That’s a huge issue for us.

Not surprisingly, our lifelines group, which comprises all the infrastructure providers, has had a burst of energy. If there are any CEO’s or senior managers in this room who’s organisations are involved in the lifelines group, I urge you to take a personal interest in what’s going on in that critical collaboration. Don’t just leave it to your technical people. And if you’re not in the group and think you should be, please get in touch with me.

Get people together and build your community – before a seismic event. Creekfest, Porirua 2011

Another area of local government planning arising from the experiences of Christchurch, more critical, and possibly just as undercooked – is preparing, enabling and supporting the community. Margaret Jeffries gives us an urgent call to action. Now is the time she says to start building resilience in our communities today. Margaret speaks about getting people together as a community, using tools such as appreciative enquiry, mind maps, and local community events so people get to know one another before the seismic event occurs. What a good idea. Wellington City has recently formally decided that it should be promoting this very idea – good on the Council for that. I know that other councils are starting to think about it, but we want more of that action.

There are existing networks of residents associations, community boards, and other sorts of groups. We should be embracing, informing and empowering them, as the basis for building the sort of community resilience that will get us through in times of crisis, seismic or otherwise. Somebody described climate change the other day as a slowly happening crisis, and it probably is.

Turning to post-event, immediate response, Reserve Bank Governor, Alan Bollard said robust and durable processes are critical, and most important are capability, competency and leadership. Leadership can take surprising forms in a crisis, say our speakers. We hear a well-considered, well-informed conclusion that leadership doesn’t necessarily mean the top person in the organisation making all the decisions.

Empowerment was a major theme from speakers focusing on the long-term, but also from leaders whose organisations were heavily involved in the immediate post-event work. Trust and empowerment are required within well-defined and robust frameworks. Alan Freeth talked about having people who knew the job of the person above and below them, and of letting people make decisions within the strong framework. More than one speaker cited the need to control heroes – interesting.

IAG’s Jacki Johnson recommends strong policy frameworks that are not over-prescriptive. Partnerships, relationships and connectedness are emphasised in some way by all speakers. The people category is the most challenging aspect of all – restoring the psycho-social health of the community. Bruce Glavovic and Charles Waldegrave offer very good counsel. Not just physical and economic recovery is important; it’s an integrated whole, human, cultural and social.

Some speakers talk about the risks and costs of human flight. People are in fact drifting back to Christchurch and it’s good to hear that. But there are huge challenges for everyone, and indeed the physical and infrastructure restoration seems almost easy, compared to the human side.

Promoting calming - Image familycentre.org.nz

Promoting calming – Family Centre post-tsunami children’s programme in Samoa – Charles Waldegrave

Charles Waldegrave gave us a sobering overview of this, advocating the need for good therapeutic responses to avoid re-traumatisation – focus on strengths, on stories of survival; important family and social connections and symbols and places of meaning. Charles reminded us it is easy to re-traumatise, and this is something we should all bear in mind – community and business leaders, politicians and the media. Charles said, “We need to promote safety, calm, self and collective efficacy, connectedness, and hope.” And that leads really into longer-term recovery.

Lessons for Wellington? I thought this was aptly summed up by Bruce Glavovic. He suggested we in Wellington should focus on building social capital, so that in the event of a disaster we can build on those strong relationships to start again. This is complex and long-term. It starts with pre-event planning, and needs meaningful, authentic, community collaboration. Only then, can we get into meaningful recovery actions, we need to lay the ground beforehand. And that means a shared understanding of risk, and that’s something pretty important I think – we do need to talk about that.

As well as the four “R”s most of us are familiar with, in terms of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, Bruce came up with the four “L”s which I thought were useful – Legitimacy, Leadership, Localisation and Linkages.

Roger Sutton (now CEO of CERA) calls for slow, calm and considered recovery. Clearly, there are two other strong messages from Christchurch. Things will not be the same. That’s important for us to remember, all of us. Keeping connected with the rest of New Zealand is also critical. We’re a small country. We can learn from and support one another.

Our closing speaker, Colin James, suggested, that as a people, as a nation, we need to be able to constantly innovate, and be able to reset policy to facilitate or promote innovation and capacity. We need a strong core, intelligent flexibility, and foresight – that’s a pretty good recipe for today’s topic. For that matter, it’s a recipe for any of the big challenges in this world, where the speed of change just keeps increasing. END

Forum co-hosted by Rotary Club of Wellington and Victoria University of Wellington

Thanks to Geonet: http://www.geonet.org.nz/earthquake/historic-earthquakes/ for information and historic images in regard to the Wairarapa/Wellington earthquakes June and August 1942. More historic images.

11 thoughts on “Lessons for Wellington

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  5. I thought that this was one of the most important forums that I have attended. The speakers were excellent, passionate and knowledgeable. I would like to see the format repeated simply so others could attend it was truly that good. A learning and sometimes touching experience of what others in Christchurch had been through. I travelled through Christchurch yesterday for the first time in a few years and the devastation to peoples lives, homes, environments and work places was beyond words.
    Well done with the forum and I hope to have the benefit of attending more in the future. Well done to the organisers and the people who brought all of the speakers together, it was truly an experience.

    Thank you.
    Sue Hewitt.

    • wooo! thank you for all the links i ended up linking to this post from my blog:)it’s gotten kind of out of control for me, posting stuff, but i can’t help it – really interesting stuff. I was wondering (about Christchurch) actually because i’d just read that the general scale of shake was less in Japan, I’ve seen so much panicking on the nuclear plant developments already. One of my friends on facebook practically had a meltdown (excuse the expression)…, which was actually good for me, because it sent me scurrying for facts (which usually have the effect of making me feel better, even if the news isn’t great) that link you cited, i’ll post right on my blog thank you

      • Thanks for your comment Raghavendra – my apologies but your comment went into the rather-full spam folder, and I noticed it as I was painstakingly deleting all the Liberty Insurance ‘comments’ – wonder if others get these? Glad the links and the site info were a help to you – that’s the goal for this site -to inform and to inspire people to talk about this stuff, and to get better prepared. Thanks again, Robyn

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