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Cook Strait Quake! This Changes Wellington | 500 Words

Cook Strait Quake! This Changes Wellington | 500 Words

Panic! Don't panic! Panic!

Sometimes there is a moment which shapes history. And I think one of those events happened today.

I was in the Old Bank Arcade in the very heart of the Wellington CBD - drinking a Mojo soy flat white, and reading an intensely annoying Andrea Vance story about how our craven government has decided not to review copyright because it would prefer that to be done in secret negotiations with the US.

At 9.05am everything started moving. A swimming motion made things all tingly and sort of slow motion. I looked up at the roof and solid looking concrete beams moving about - just a little bit. Some of the the 10 or so people present started looking at the door, reminding me that maybe I too should think about making a run for the street which is only meters away.

Afterwards ( having survived a near death experience together ) we had a chat about being safest earthquake buildings in the city, some of us knew this. And as there was no crashing of glass the next question that arose was where was the quake and was everything/everybody else also ok.

And thank God it turns out that yes everything is ok.

So is this is just another small non-damaging earthquake?

This quake was shallow just 8km deep, of 5.7 magnitude and classed severe.

It is in the middle of the Cook Strait just a few kilometres from Wellington's rugged South Coast.

It could be said that was very near the location that Wellington most fears an earthquake may cause an under-sea land slide and generate a tsunami wave to strike our Southern Coast.

We will soon get some views from experts seeking to reassure us that this is nothing to be worried about.

And I would be very keen to see a frequency map of earthquakes in the vicinity of this one over time ( Dear GNS - pretty please).

But it is one thing to be told that you are ok and another thing to believe it.

Wellington was already suffering from a locked earthquake re-insurance market before today's quake. Wellington has - according to reports - been declared ground zero for pricing earthquake re-insurance premiums by some of the World's biggest reinsures. This earthquake is not going to help with that.

I have previously reported in this column ( Apocalypse Wellington | 500 Words Wednesday, 13 March 2013 ) how the 400-600% rises in commercial insurance premiums on Wellington buildings have the potential to destroy billions of value in the Wellington CBD and expose bank lending in the to massive impairment as insurance covenants under mortgage paper cannot be met by borrowers.

Already the distress is intensifying. Quality apartment properties in the Wellington CBD are now selling for less than 50% of the pre-Christchurch earthquake market price and it is likely that 100s, if not 1000s, of property owners in Wellington are in a negative equity situation already.

Banks, property owners, the local authority, developers, valuers, everybody in the Wellington CBD property industry has been hoping that the re-insurance market will right itself and that insurance premiums will start to come down.

Today's earthquake seems likely to slow down any relief on that front.

To my mind at the very least re-insurers will want to wait at least 2 years to find out if this quake - like the shallow, severe, Canterbury September 4th 2010 7.1 quake, which was followed months later by the February 22nd fatal quake - is a symptom of something more disturbing. It is probably not - but re-insurers are in the business of making hunches and profiting from risk. I expect that like everybody they are a bit superstitious.

And that is where the second mechanism which will drive change in Wellington will come from - the psychology of this quake.

The picture above makes me think. Shit. I am glad that quake was 5.7 not 6.7.

We are a pretty robust bunch when it comes to earthquakes in Wellington. If someone is really fearful of earthquakes they probably couldn't, or shouldn't, live here.

We feel them at least once or twice a year - though it feels like it is more frequently these days thanks to the invention of Twitter. I have felt them all my life and am very stoic about usually - the small ones release the tension - they are good.

We hope/expect to be safe. We reassure ourselves with the statistics that say things like we are less likely to die in an earthquake than in a plane crash.

But we were given a pretty big knock by Christchurch. We deliberately avert our eyes from our South Island neighbours - partly because we don't really want to comprehend that happening here.

And now we have been given a big reminder of that knock.

In the days that follow we will talk about this over breakfast, in the pub and over coffee. And some people who were starting to feel less afraid of earthquakes will feel more afraid.

If we are blessed and think smartly about all this then over time this will go away, and we will soon recover (assuming we can fix the insurance problem).

But either way we will remember this day - the day of the 19 July 2013 Cook Strait earthquake.

And some of us will be fervently praying that all we remember is this reminder.

- Alastair Thompson | 500 Words | Friday, 19 July 2013

[Update: Geonet has tweeted a map of the last 60 days of shallow earthquake in NZ. Posters showing ten years of quakes are available on their earthquake information page.]

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