The next big one

San Francisco was rocked by a mere 4.4 magnitude earthquake yesterday with insignificant damage and no lives lost.

Every day on television we are told to prepare for the next “big one.”

In the 70’s I worked with someone who survived the 1931 Napier earthquake.  He was a boy in maths class at Napier Boys High School when the magnitude 7.8 quake struck at 10:47 am on 3 February killing 256, injuring thousands and devastating the Hawke’s Bay region.

He said the whole class headed to the door at the same time, no earthquake drill in those days, just sheer panic.  He recollected climbing over the backs of dozens of boys jammed in the doorway, ducking under the lintel to get out of the shaking, groaning building.

The sharp prong of the drawing compass still clutched in his hand was bent at right angles when he emerged outside on the school field.   He was no safer there, horrified to see the grass moving in waves and opening up huge chasms in the ground.

His story sticks in my mind when I recollect my own school days in Hawkes Bay where we were taught to stop, drop and hold, under our desks, when an earthquake struck.

Although the 1931 Napier earthquake is engrained in my mind as the “big one,” other countries around the world have suffered deadlier quakes.

In 1935 on 31 May at 2:33 am local time in Quetta, Balochistan, British Raj (now part of Pakistan) an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.7-7.8 killed anywhere between 30,000 and 60,000 people.

The deadliest quake recorded since 1900 was in Tangshan, China, on 28 July 1976 at 3:42am local time.  Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake caused over 240,000 deaths and completely destroyed 93% of residential buildings and 78% of industrial buildings.

For Christchurch residents 22 February 2011 at 12.51 pm was when their “big one” struck.  A magnitude 6.3 earthquake, it caused severe damage in Christchurch and Lyttelton, killing 185 people and injuring several thousand. But for our building regulations including earthquake standards, many more might have died.

The pancaked Christchurch Television (CTV) building claimed 62%, or 115 lives, in the Christchurch quake.  “The CTV Building was designed and constructed in about 1986.  Christchurch City Council gave building consent in September 1986.  Building codes for earthquake design changed frequently in New Zealand following the1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake (in 1935, 1965, 1976, 1984 and 1992).”

Until our upgraded building codes are implemented by everyone involved in a building’s construction, that is the architects, builders and councils that sign them off, lives will continue to be lost in big quakes.

Knowing who is responsible for the collapse of the CTV building won’t bring them back.  But anguished relatives still want someone to blame for the collapse of the building responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.

An intense three-year review into the CTV building collapse concluded insufficient evidence for a police prosecution.  Mistakes were made but apparently, the faults contributing to the building’s collapse are unable to be assigned to any one party.

As technology moves forward we constantly update our earthquake building codes.   Gotta love the desire to save lives, but what about the time lag between approval of new standards and the remedial work actually being carried out?

A 2016 assessment of high rise buildings in Wellington and Auckland has confirmed most failed to meet standards designed to keep people safe from falling objects during earthquakes.

Now that we know how hard it is to place blame when a building collapses, where is the incentive for the remedial work to be carried out at all?


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The subject evoked in the collage is the debating of political issues with friends in a public place

Pablo Picasso
Glass and bottle of Suze (after 18 November 1912)
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