Learning from the past to prepare for the future

In the grand scheme of things, we have quite short memories. When something is fresh in our minds, even the smallest triggers can transport us back to that moment — what we saw, how we felt, what we feared, and what we did.

It seems almost as real as when it actually occurred and lends urgency to making sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s how we learn and improve.That same real-life experience is essential when learning from disaster situations and improving the resilience of our cities.

The cost of disasters

2011 set a record when it came to natural disasters. It wasn’t the number of disasters — at 302 it was the lowest for the past 10 years — or the number of people killed — nearly 30,000 lost their lives compared with the annual average of 107,000 — it was the cost.

The United Nations estimated that US$366 billion worth of damage was caused by natural disasters around the world in 2011, making it the costliest year for disasters on record. The majority of this cost can be attributed to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the February earthquake in Christchurch.

The combined cost of September 2010’s 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, February 2011’s 6.3 shake, and the multitude of sizeable aftershocks in between and since is estimated to be close to NZ$30 billion.

The focus now is on rebuilding and it’s essential that lessons learned from previous incidents are taken into consideration in order to help minimise the effects next time a similar event occurs.

Investing in preparedness

WSP Opus relationship manager and structural engineer Noel Evans has witnessed the effects of earthquakes first hand in Chile, Gisborne and, more recently, Christchurch. He says that while they’re quite unsung, the benefits of acting on lessons learned have already been seen in Christchurch. “Orion spent NZ$6–7 million over the past 10 to 15 years and they believed it saved them NZ$60–70 million in damage to their network, let alone in down-time. That’s a huge return.”

Orion owns and operates the electricity distribution network in central Canterbury, between the Waimakariri and Rakaia rivers, and from the Canterbury coast to Arthur’s Pass. It covers 8,000km2 and includes Christchurch City and Banks Peninsula.“Orion is a home-grown example where they were getting out and doing that work,” Evans

Lessons in Gisborne for Christchurch

Lessons from the 2007 earthquake in Gisborne can prove helpful as Christchurch is rebuilt. While it was far less damaging than Christchurch’s earthquakes, Gisborne’s 6.8 magnitude quake damaged almost a third of businesses in the CBD, and prompted insurance claims totalling more than NZ$55 million. In the following two years, researchers from WSP Opus Research investigated the short-term and medium-term recovery of businesses and properties in Gisborne’s CBD. Principal researcher, Dr Felicity Powell, says the study showed that many of the issues currently facing Christchurch were also present in Gisborne, albeit on a smaller scale.

These issues included delays in insurance payouts and a short supply of architects, structural engineers and skilled tradespeople. Owners of some of the worst affected buildings found the delays took them beyond the period covered by their business continuity insurance policies. It also turned out that some policies didn’t include the costs of rebuilding to the current building code so owners had to draw on cash reserves or borrow to pay for the upgrade. As a result, building owners said they would be more attentive to the strength and structure of any building they were looking to buy or lease in the future, especially if it was older.

Immediately after the earthquake, almost a quarter of commercial building owners said they believed investing in buildings in the city was more risky.

Considering around 1,200 buildings in the Christchurch CBD area have been demolished because of damage sustained in the February earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, this sense of risk is only heightened in the Christchurch area.

Perception of risk

Dr Powell says that after the Christchurch earthquakes, the heightened perception of risk relating to earthquake-prone buildings is far more widespread, affecting towns and cities all over the country. “We expect however, that this will diminish over time, as perceptions of risk are always higher just after an event occurs.”

Dr Powell says the WSP Opus Research team will be heading back to Gisborne to investigate the longer-term recovery process and will be communicating their findings to decision-makers in Christchurch and Wellington so that likely problems can be addressed before they arise.