N.Z. in lock down: DAY 29

Yesterday was DAY 29 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

One of the most constant – and least surprising – conversations that is being had is about the effect of the lock down on the economy.

As a Christchurch lad who witnessed the devastation of the 04 September 2010 earthquake, along with the February 2011 and June 2011 aftershocks, I think I have an idea of what could constitute grim times. It is certainly true that the pandemic has not physically destroyed any buildings, but the number of businesses closing around Christchurch, the jarring uncertainty about whether they will reopen, the massive job losses that are occurring, certainly have brought on a feeling of deja vu about it all.

I have huge sympathy for the many many people who have lost jobs, who do not know if they will have a job to go back to when most of New Zealand goes back to work. I know that the socio-economic toll grows the longer we keep the country in lock down and I agree that we cannot stay in it forever.

But that is where the doom and gloom ends. I am optimistic about New Zealand coming thundering back from all of this. Will it happen overnight? No, but with no past experience on shutting a country down and restarting it again, it was never going to happen overnight.

I am optimistic because there is a massive, almost unparalleled opportunity for an economic revolution right now in New Zealand. Earlier this year I wrote consecutive blog articles about why neoliberalism is a massive, abject failure here and why we need to be rid of it. Here now is that perfect opportunity to do exactly that. But not only is there a unique opportunity to get rid of an economic model that has failed the vast majority of New Zealand, the potential model that could go in its place is even more thrilling.

So what is that model that could replace the failed neoliberal experiment?

The model I am calling for is a massive investment in skilled trades; niche industries backed by a complete overhaul of the New Zealand no. 8 wire model of research. It will be green, it will be designed by New Zealanders and it will work for New Zealand and New Zealanders.

We have hundreds of tradies in bad need of a steady work stream. One thing that could sort a significant number of them out is refurbishing all of the state house inventory so that they have 21st century standards of warmth and dryness. This will indirectly partially pay for itself by helping reduce the problems many New Zealanders have around asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Another one is seismic retrofitting large buildings in high seismic risk areas with shock absorbers so that the buildings can sway backwards and forth, whilst the absorbers take the seismic energy. With hundreds of buildings in the South and North Island in urgent need of this and no idea how long before the next big earthquake hits, this is a priority we should take note of.

But it is not just singular buildings or jobs for a couple of people per site that we need. New Zealand is critically behind on infrastructure. We need a comprehensive overhaul of our railway system; we could be building a hydrogen plant and investing in that instead of fossil fuel; maybe a hemp crete research facility to help cut the carbon emissions of the concrete industry, which I understand puts out about 8% of total carbon emissions.

Much of the knowledge for these ideas is already there. But is the political willpower to do something truly radical?

You tell me.



Unacceptable risk posed by quake prone hospital buildings

Staff working in Christchurch hospitals have expressed concerns that the buildings they are working in pose an undue risk in an earthquake. Furthermore the staff are concerned that they have only one option: accept the risk or resign.

It is all the more unacceptable to have these buildings in such a state as they are in a city still recovering from New Zealand’s worst seismic disaster in 80 years. The Canterbury District Health Board should not be treating this in the manner that it is, as C.D.H.B. will bear responsibility for any failure of duty of care to all those working and around the buildings on a day where they fail or suffer significant structural damage in an earthquake.

The staff are right to be concerned. It is not paranoia or anything else – aside from a duty of care to their patients to make sure that they are in as safe an environment as possible during their time of care there, staff also have the right to know that they will be safe in delivering that duty of care.

I am concerned that Christchurch as a city, and the C.D.H.B. as a Government entity are not recognizing and upholding that unspoken promise many of us would have made in mourning the passage of those who died, to learn the lessons of 22 February 2011. What example are we setting for future generations by failing in this relatively simple yet fundamentally important task?

No charges for C.T.V. building engineers

CTV building before 22 February 2011 and after (PHOTO: 3 NEWS)

At 1251 hours 22 February 2011 in an earthquake that could be technically classified as an aftershock of the 04 September 2010 magnitude 7.1 Canterbury earthquake, the Canterbury Television building on Madras Street, Christchurch collapsed. 115 people lost their lives. Investigations into who knew what about the status of the building found three people potentially culpable for its failure.

The C.T.V. building right from its design and construction was a fundamentally flawed building. On 26 December 2010, a violent magnitude 5.0 aftershock struck right under central Christchurch. Afterwards the C.T.V. building was given a second green sticker, siginalling it had been inspected and no damage likely to threaten the integrity of the building or peoples safety had been detected. This was a fatal mistake.

Today however, the New Zealand Police announced that they were not going to charge anyone over the C.T.V. building failure. The reasons given were:

  1. The threshhold of culpability with the probable charge of manslaughter was too high – the Crown had to prove that the conduct of any defendant charged was so bad as to warrant the distinction of being considered a serious crime
  2. The length of time that had passed between building and the deaths occurring

I accept that the threshhold required to prosecute in negligent manslaughter is very high. To do so one must be able to prove that the building would have failed if it were not for the design flaws.

However there are people who should have been looked at more closely than they were:

  1. Gerald Shirtcliffe (William Fisher), who faked a whole degree based another William Fisher in England who had finished a degree in civil engineering – completely unqualified to be working in the building industry at all and known to have made serious errors in his supervision of the C.T.V. building’s construction
  2. Alan Reay, who designed the building was working out of his depth and knew it
  3. David Harding, the engineer who was employed by Alan Reay Consultants failed to disclose at an Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand disciplinary hearing his involvement in the C.T.V. building design

I further think that the building code in 1986 was probably strict enough that if followed, the building might have still had deaths in it, but not a catastrophic collapse killing 115 people. Then the specifications set down in the then building code would have designed with the understanding that Christchurch is not immune to earthquakes, that seismic waves can be amplified passing through certain strata and that the seismic waves also induce vertical movement as well as side to side shaking.

A case does exist, nonetheless for amending the law to enable such suggested prosecutions to happen. The investigation should be conducted with the support of a technical expert – qualified I.P.E.N.Z. registered engineer, or other suitable person – who shall have access to whatever files are relevant.

It will not bring back the dead. It will not change the fact that on the day of the quake there was also uncertainty about who should be leading the rescue effort. But it will hopefully ensure that the C.T.V. failure on 22 February 2011 is the last of its kind in New Zealand and that New Zealanders pay due regard to such matters in the future.

Time running out for Wellington to reinforce buildings

In February 2017, the Government set a deadline of the end of February 2018 for Wellington buildings with unreinforced masonry to have done appropriate strengthening work. With less than 6 months to go, not one of the 98 building owners singled out have completed the work and Wellington City Council is starting to get uncomfortable about it.

The deadline was imposed in the wake of the Kaikoura earthquake which affected numerous buildings in Wellington. A few have had to be demolished. Others have had to be closed whilst urgent strengthening work is done. Some needed cosmetic repairs and were able to open again relatively quickly.

But there are 98 building owners out there who – if an earthquake struck Wellington dead on tomorrow – would be in breach of their duty of care to anyone walking past their building should it collapse. In fact the building does not even need to collapse. Below are photos I took of quake damaged parapets in Christchurch after the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes. All of these buildings shown below were red stickered  – i.e. they had suffered damage that meant it was not safe to enter.

39 of the 185 people killed on or as a result of the 22 February 2011 aftershock were struck by collapsing parapets. These parapets might not have been initially weakened in the first aftershocks following the 04 September 2010 earthquake. However by the time the aftershock sequence reached February 2011 there would have been thousands including numerous magnitude 5.0+ aftershocks, all of which would have contributed to their weakened state.

This building was red stickered on 04 September 2010 and was demolished on 24 February 2011.

Damage to building front. Note the cracks below the damaged masonry. (R. Glennie)

The tragic consequences. One of the 39 deaths happened here.

I understand that it will be expensive and that this is a burden on building owners. Perhaps, but you knew when you purchased this building – if you did you homework – that it would be vulnerable in an earthquake. Now, having had two magnitude 7.0+ events causing significant damage in a decade, surely you have noticed the public mood for accountability has changed?

The engineer who checked the building that collapsed in the bottom photo must have trouble sleeping at night in the knowledge he said it was safe, not once, but twice – even when there were staff walking around in the building with hard hats on. Perhaps it is because the Sunday programme exposed what happened and people want answers.

The urgent case for accelerating Wellington’s quake readiness

After the Christchurch earthquake. What we did not recognize in that sequence was that just because a seismic event one order of magnitude lower than that of the original large event had not happened did not mean it could not happen – we would just take most of six months to find out.

The sequences of aftershocks certainly kept reminding people that the sequence would take some time to ride out, with notable aftershocks on 04, 13 and 19 October 2010. All of these caused brief power outages throughout the central business district, liquefaction and an end to trading at numerous small businesses in older buildings. An aftershock on Boxing Day 2010 permanently closed the Whitcoulls bookshop building in Cashel Mall, and it was not hard to see why with extensive cracks in the facade. The same aftershock should have forced the evacuation of the C.T.V. building, but did not – with dreadful consequences.

Wellington and Kaikoura are experiencing a similar pattern now. The initial burst of magnitude 6 aftershocks has gone quiet. Like Christchurch during its earthquake sequence, Wellington and Kaikoura have not quickly had an aftershock an order of magnitude lower than the original magnitude 7.8 event. Due to a logarithmic increase in energy release for every whole order of magnitude a magnitude 5.0 is about 32 times more powerful than a magnitude 4.0 at the same location and depth; a magnitude 6.0 is about 32 times more powerful than a magnitude 5.0 at the same location and depth and so on. Thus the absence of an aftershock in the magnitude 6.8-7.0 range means that quite substantial energy is being locked up in the sequence. Because of the large area affected by the original earthquake, it is impossible to know where such an event could occur.

Only time will tell how this aftershock sequence plays out.

Wellington and Kaikoura need to keep this in mind as they move forward from 14 November 2016. Both places need to remember there is no substitute for everyone getting out safely from a building after an earthquake. With that in mind there are going to be some painful arguments over whether to pull down high risk buildings that might look beautiful but are structurally unsound. Politicians will debate the costs of earthquake strengthening, not wanting to put the tenants under undue financial pressure or pass on to ratepayers. Councils and the Government have a duty of care to their taxpayers/ratepayers, visitors and anyone else in their jurisdiction on the day of a major disaster. By shirking their responsibilities they can be exposing themselves and thus their rate/taxpayer base by default to potentially massive litigation and/or criminal proceedings.

That is not okay.

Wellington City Council has started a programme of identifying at risk buildings. Depending on how earthquake prone they are, the W.C.C. is assigning the landlords 10, 15 or 20 year deadlines to bring their assets up to an acceptable standard. The 10 year deadlines are for the most at risk buildings, some of which are now probably closed indefinitely or have owners scrambling for indepth assessments so they can determine how they proceed. The recent and ongoing seismic activity will also hopefully have jolted owners of buildings in the other two categories to bring forward their planned assessments.

And if anyone is still in doubt, this piece of advice from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is worth remembering:

“Buildings with less than one-third of the strength of a new building have about 10 to 20 times the risk of serious damage or collapse when compared to a new building.” mbie.govt.nz