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When an earthquake happens it will not be at a convenient time.
The ground will shake strongly, and possibly for a minute or more, when you are on the beach at St Clair on a sunny summer’s afternoon. Or when you are doing your grocery shopping. Or it will come in the middle of a long winter night when the wind is howling, rain is pouring down, the lights are flickering and Civil Defence is already on flooding alert.
One of these days a major earthquake will strike Otago. It may be the expected magnitude 8 quake generated by the Alpine Fault; it could be from one of the region’s smaller faults — including the Akatore Fault offshore of Dunedin and the Green Island Fault — or it might come from a fault not yet not known about, as happened in Christchurch’s deadly February 2011 earthquake.
As a region, how ready are we to face such an immense event? After a major earthquake, Otago folk will be forced to dig deep to cope with the likely loss of life; the huge knock to businesses, the regional economy and livelihood; and massive disruption to services we all take for granted.
As those who have been through a natural disaster can attest, it’s not just day one people have to be ready to cope with — it’s day two and three, and week two and three, and the next month or two. Ongoing aftershocks will test the region’s physical and psychological resolve as will the reality of queueing for water from tankers or in the supermarket, and using septic toilets. Even driving from one side of town to the other can become a frustrating, almost insurmountable task. It is these difficulties that, over months, grind down individuals and communities.
This week marked the first anniversary of the magnitude 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake, which ripped across North Canterbury and Marlborough in the dead of night, killing two people, wrecking homes and businesses, scarring the landscape, and breaking vital coastal road and rail links, which, even a year on, remain fragile and only open for specified periods while remedial work continues.
Fortunately for Wellington, the fault rupture stopped on reaching Cook Strait. While those in the capital had a frightening experience, and many buildings were cracked and weakened, it could have been a lot worse.
Because of this quake, the Seddon/Cook Strait quakes of 2013 and the Canterbury earthquake sequence which began in September 2010, Wellington, Christchurch and central New Zealand are now better prepared for the next major shake. But is Dunedin? Queenstown?The threat in Queenstown comes from the Alpine Fault, which is only about 80km as the crow flies from the southern end of the fault at the entrance to Milford Sound.A magnitude 8 or more quake — about due given the average interval between quakes on the fault is about 330 years and the last one was in 1717 — will seriously affect the town and compromise tourist operations.
Dunedin is further away from the Alpine Fault threat but not immune to significant tremors. Some longtime Dunedin residents will remember the evening quake on April 9, 1974. Just before 7.50pm, according to the Otago Daily Times the following morning, a sharp jolt rattled the city. That was rapidly followed by a main shock that registered magnitude 5, from an offshore fault only about 5km south of St Clair. Power was cut, chimneys toppled and shelves emptied of stock. There were more than 3000 claims to the Earthquake Commission.
In June 2015, there was also a magnitude 4.7 shake near Lee Stream, about 30km away from the city, which caused some alarm among people living in eastern parts of the region.There is no room for complacency in our shaky islands. Fill those water bottles, have lots of batteries, keep the car well topped up with fuel. Know what to do in an emergency.