6 Jul 2018

Analysis: Quake-prone buildings force tough decisions

2:47 pm on 6 July 2018

When it comes to making buildings earthquake safe, the more essential it is, the tougher the choices become.

Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth.

While parts of Yarrow Stadium are closed, hospitals remain open and full of patients. Photo: RNZ/Robin Martin

The shakier things get under our feet, the scarier things look over our heads.

Which explains a newspaper headline from a couple of years back - 'The Christchurch earthquake dilemma: Should we go or stay put?'

But what if you don't get the choice?

The new methods engineers have been using since last year to assess the risks that buildings pose are throwing up just this problem for people around the country, in very different ways.

Compare a Taranaki rugby fan, with a hospital patient in Canterbury, with a mall rat in Lower Hutt.

Anyone wanting to see 'Naki defend the Ranfurly Shield at their home ground starting next month must be content with a view down the length of the field from one end or the other.

Because all the best seats along each side of the field under the covered stands are out of bounds.

They've been newly assessed as earthquake-prone ('prone' meaning that one or more critical structural part is less than a third as strong as a brand new up-to-standard building would be on the same site, and is a threat to life in a strong shake).

The East Stand was shut late last year and the West Stand suffered the same fate last month.

At about the same time, down in Christchurch the district health board was quietly adding half a dozen names to the national register of earthquake-prone buildings.

Count among them "Parkside, blocks 1-4" - that's intensive care, coronary care, engineering and a whole bunch of wards; and "Riverside" - that contains neurosurgery, x-rays, children's wards, and in fact one of the largest inpatient blocks in the country.

New seismic assessments had confirmed what the hospital bosses already knew, after 24,000 reports on their building stock since the 2011 quake.

Taranaki is in the country's least risky Quake Zone 1.

And half of Yarrow Stadium is closed anyway, to keep the rugby-watching public safe.

Christchurch is in Quake Zone 2, which means the risks are higher.

However, the quake-prone hospital buildings aren't closed, they're full of patients and staff.

There's nowhere else to put them, the DHB says.

It should know; it has shuffled major clinical services several times already and must do this several times more in the decade ahead, before replacement buildings are built.

Some nurses have been telling their union they're worried going to work each day at the Riverside by what's over their heads: 75 tonnes of water in tanks on the seventh floor that are the biggest threat of collapsing the block, but cannot be emptied for fear of overheating the MRI machines downstairs.

But it's either that, or lose their job.

As for the patients, they have even less of a choice.

Middlemore Hospital in South Auckland and Wairarapa Hospital find themselves in similar dire straits with major buildings.

About equidistant between the Riverside and the Yarrow is Queensgate in Lower Hutt, the Wellington region's largest mall.

It's been quieter there since shoppers learned last month of, yes, a new engineering assessment that's found three of the mall's 10 interlocked buildings are quake-prone.

Queensgate presents me with a personal dilemma: I know someone who works there part-time. I don't want them to lose their job if too many people stay away; but I don't want them going to work either, to cater to people's entirely discretionary shopping habits in a quake-prone shop-warren in Quake Zone 3 (out of 4 Zones).

So, three newly minted quake-prone predicaments in the Hutt, Taranaki and Christchurch: The mall has opted to stay open, but shoppers can choose to stay away; the stadium has opted to shut the stands, though fans can go along anyway; the hospital cannot shut, and no one who has to be there has very much choice in the matter at all.

All in all it appears that when it comes to quakes and buildings, the more essential it is, the tougher the choices become.

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