Earthquake persistence pays

Sometimes individuals can make a difference. Sometimes their skill and persistence wins through and policies are amended. This is the case with planned changes to earthquake-strengthening requirements.

Ann Brower was the sole survivor after an unreinforced brick facade in Colombo St crushed the bus she was traveling in. The eight other passengers were killed, as were four pedestrians. As Dr Brower has put it, she was the only one left, the lucky 13th.

That was nearly four and a-half years ago when the second big shake hit Canterbury and wrought devastation and death. Dr Brower subsequently spent two months in hospital and six months off work after breaking countless bones.

Since then, she has been applying her professional expertise - she is a senior lecturer in the department of environmental management at Lincoln University - and her personal passion to seek changes to the Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Bill.

It was reported back from select committee this week, and Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith said a new category of building had been introduced after a strong submission from Dr Brower.

The Bill included already announced changes to how quickly earthquake-prone buildings need to be assessed and strengthened. These changes were sensible and recognised some parts of the country were lower-risk and time frames could be stretched. Of course, there is always the possibility of a major shake anywhere at anytime.

But all hazards can never be eliminated from life and risks and benefits have to be weighed.

There had been the danger that cities such as Dunedin could be decimated by the more urgent requirements that in many cases are simply unaffordable. The pushing out of time frames for many parts of the country also takes some of the pressure off the capacity of structural engineers to cope with demand.

Extra time might also allow the development of more understanding of the assessment process and how buildings are judged on percentages of new building standards. Extreme variations between different engineers in at least the initial assessments has created scepticism about the validity of the results.

Dr Brower, however, brought up a different matter to the overall structural integrity of buildings. She was concerned about non-structural unreinforced masonry - parapets, gables and chimneys. As she pointed out, they are the cheapest to fix, the first to fall and the deadliest when they do so. Parapets, in particular, can be tied back or replaced without the whole building having to be retrofitted.

These are the parts of buildings that fall into public spaces such as streets and footpaths. People might have a choice to enter buildings that may be stickered with warnings. They have fewer options when walking along the road, or in Dr Brower's case just in a bus.

The select committee has listened and created this new category for buildings with unreinforced masonry features that could fall into a public road, footpath or other thoroughfare identified by a council as being sufficiently busy to warrant priority treatment.

The time to assess and strengthen these features will be halved. For Dunedin, this means identification and assessment within seven and a-half years and strengthened within a further 17 and a-half. This will give councils more work and there may be some other issues which arise. But overall, the changes to the Bill seem to be a pragmatic and balanced response.

Dr Brower, who will always suffer from pain from her injuries, said the changes were an example of ''democracy in action''. ''It's great to see select committees listening to submissions, even if it's at the 11th hour,'' she said.

''Making our buildings safer is the first step toward rising from the ashes, while we honour the souls who are within those ashes.''

Dr Smith, meanwhile, said Dr Brower was a ''true New Zealand hero'' and without her ''fastidious advocacy'', the changes would not have come about. The change is predicted to affect about 2000 of the estimated 40,000 buildings likely to need earthquake work.


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