Having just presided over the National Emergency Management Association’s summit in Seattle, Oct. 5-9—my last act as NEMA president—I have a lot to reflect on. What we accomplished at NEMA in the past year and what we need to keep working on—I’ll save that for a future blog. In the meantime, it’s back to life in the Evergreen State. What are the pressing priorities at EMD and in the state’s emergency management community? One concern always near the top of the list is addressed here by EMD’s Earthquake Program Manager John Schelling.
Director, Washington State Emergency Management
Hard realities: The Christchurch recovery two years on and what it means for Washington State
I found my answer to that question when visiting Christchurch, New Zealand, Aug. 19-29. I went down under as part of a U.S. Geological Survey research project to examine how Christchurch was doing almost two years after Sept. 4, 2010. On that day, a devastating M7.1 earthquake had struck just outside the city. That was followed on Feb. 22, 2011 by an even more powerful M6.2 quake only six miles away. And it didn’t stop there. Since the Canterbury quakes began in Sept. 2010, Christchurch and environs have suffered from more than 12,000 aftershocks.
It is impossible to grasp the scope of a disaster until you are in the ground and in the middle of it. In Christchurch for a brief visit to see firsthand how the recovery was working and what challenges remained, our group was astounded by what we found. I looked at Christchurch and saw Washington State. I could not stop thinking about home and the hard realities that will confront us when our Big One hits. Earthquake recovery can take a long, long, long time. But we have choices. For each one of the project’s key findings about Christchurch, below, I’ve posed what we can do now to make for a better outcome in Washington State in the future.
Long-term mitigation strategies are needed for liquefaction hazards—now.In Christchurch: Entire neighborhoods, even fairly new ones, have been abandoned. Why? Given the short- and long-term instability of the land, it is simply cost prohibitive to provide water, wastewater and electricity to these neighborhoods.
In Washington: We continue to allow construction in current and historic river valleys, and on reclaimed land. We can do better about taking action with regard to this hazard.
We need more comprehensive earthquake mitigation, beginning with stronger building codes—now.In Christchurch: Picture whole city blocks surrounded by construction fencing and consider this: If building owner X has a newer or retrofit building and building owner Y does not, we assume market forces will take care of both building owners after a big quake. The reality in Christchurch was that building owner Y’s structure was taller than everyone else’s and fell on the buildings of owners A-Z. Magnify this by 100 and you have a picture of Christchurch, its entire central business district closed for two years with another one or two years to go.
In Washington: U.S. building codes strive for a single objective – keep occupants alive. They are not designed to be used, post-earthquake. How long does it take to build an office building, a hospital, a school, a church? How much does it cost? How long does it take to demolish them? Japan spends more than we do on buildings and infrastructure to ensure they are usable after a quake. That’s the price of resilience.
We need to reform the role of earthquake insurance for Washingtonians—now.
In Christchurch: Losses from the Canterbury quakes may be the most insured in modern history—more than 80% were covered. Unfortunately, ambiguity in the language of New Zealand’s national earthquake insurance policy led to disputes about which earthquakes would be covered: The first one, the second one, the 11,000th one? The lack of clear coverage and a timely claims process has greatly slowed recovery in Christchurch.In Washington: Here, there has been a decrease in private companies offering earthquake insurance. We need to establish an earthquake insurance authority similar to California’s, and partner with insurers and reinsurers to create market conditions conducive to providing coverage and encouraging investment in these products.
School faculty and staff need resources to help children cope with disasters—now.In Christchurch: At least nine schools with some 7,500 students in and around Christchurch were closed by the earthquake. Other schools in the area were supported with grief counseling and teacher training to help children cope. Meanwhile, many families relocated elsewhere in New Zealand and around the world over the past two years; but the principals and teachers of those schools beyond Christchurch have been left unequipped to help their new, uprooted students.
In Washington: The hard reality is that we need to think more holistically about who is affected from these disasters and that our most precious resources—our kids—are not lost in the shuffle.
Businesses need continuity of operations plans—now.In Christchurch: Businesses are beginning to come back, but many retailers are now in portable and temporary structures such as cargo containers and garden sheds. Why? Cargo containers and garden sheds are easy to set up on city lots that have been scraped clean of debris and demolished buildings, and—even more important--are not permanent and therefore have less stringent permitting and code requirements.
In Washington: We need a strong private sector that can keep going afterwards to keep our economy stable and people employed. Resilient Organisations has taken a step in the right direction by creating a toolkit for small business owners, see http://www.resorgs.org.nz/News/get-ready-get-thru-for-small-businesses.html.
Develop a post-earthquake recovery plan—now.In Christchurch: The recovery plan for Christchurch has just been completed—two years after the earthquake. Insurance issues were a factor but, also, what to do with homes in areas impacted by, you guessed it, liquefaction. In Christchurch, buildings and people experienced some of the strongest vertical motions ever recorded from aftershocks.
In Washington: The hard reality is that we have been lucky. Within our lifetime, there is a 10-14% chance of a subduction zone earthquake and a 20% chance of a quake like the one that hit Christchurch. Our land-use planners project future urban and rural densities; services for transportation, parks, water and wastewater; and infrastructure to support growth. But they never, ever—over the whole course of a 20-year planning horizon—project a Christchurch shock to this system. It’s time to integrate post-disaster realities into our future planning. If nothing else, it will give communities, property owners and decision makers a foundation for launching a speedy recovery.
Personal preparedness: Sign up for the first-ever Great ShakeOut—now!
In Christchurch: New Zealand, Japan and Italy all have had devastating earthquakes in the past three years. All have joined the Great ShakeOut international movement. The Great ShakeOut has a simple goal. Teach people earthquake safety through public drop, cover, and hold on drills and encourage participants to do at least one more thing to be better prepared for an earthquake.
In Washington, our inaugural Great Washington ShakeOut drill is at 10:18 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18. I encourage you to “drop, cover, and hold on” tomorrow, and do one more thing, at least, to improve your quality of life after an earthquake. You’re welcome to do more, of course, but the point of ShakeOut is for folks to take that important first step. There’s still time! Sign up now at www.shakeout.org/washington.
Hard realities, hard choices
I look at our state and see Christchurch. Decision makers in Washington State have never had to deal with a catastrophe that huge. But they, and we, have a choice. Money is going to be spent one way or the other. Do we defer and spend it after the Big One hits? Or do we buy down the recovery now and invest in a more resilient Washington at today’s rates? Boil it down to this: Would you be willing to go for two years, as have many in Christchurch, without flushing your toilet?
John SchellingEarthquake Program Manager, Washington State Emergency Management
IN LIEU OF A LOO: For two long years now—since the first earthquake struck in Sept. 2010—many residents of Christchurch have had to dispose of their waste in curbside bins for regular pick up, this because repairing sewer lines in unstable soils would be too costly. Photo by John D. Schelling, EMD.