What Christchurch, New Zealand, learned from its destructive earthquakes, and how Washington state compares.

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The magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011 laid waste to much of the city and killed 185 people. Although Seattle is on the opposite side of the world, the age, building stock and building codes of each city are similar — and so are the shallow faults under them. The Christchurch disaster and the ongoing effort to rebuild hold key lessons for Seattle and Washington state:

Retrofitting schools saved lives

New Zealand’s Ministry of Education had replaced or structurally upgraded all school buildings made of unreinforced masonry, the most vulnerable type of construction, by the mid-1990s. The ministry then surveyed all 2,361 public schools for seismic weaknesses between 1998 and 2001, finding that 11 percent needed remedial work. Though some students and staff were injured as they fled buildings in the February 2011 quake, there were no fatalities on school grounds.

In Washington, state law doesn’t mandate seismic evaluations of school buildings. About one in every three students enrolled in Washington’s public schools attends a campus in an earthquake-prone area built before seismic standards were adopted statewide, according to a Seattle Times analysis. While Seattle Public Schools has earmarked $100 million for seismic retrofits since 2010, many poorer districts struggle to raise funds.

Vulnerable buildings were deadly


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The failure of unreinforced-masonry buildings in Christchurch killed 42 people, and an office building constructed from brittle concrete collapsed and killed another 18. New Zealand passed a new law that requires retrofits within 15 to 35 years, depending on the level of risk they pose to the public. High-priority buildings must be retrofitted within half the normal time frames.

Washington’s state and city governments do not require retrofits of existing buildings, unless an extensive renovation triggers a mandatory seismic upgrade. Beginning two years ago, Seattle building officials have withheld permits for unreinforced-masonry buildings until they receive proof that the parapet is secure. An advisory committee in Seattle is scheduled to reconvene Dec. 6 to look at options for requiring retrofits to unreinforced-masonry buildings.

Insurance aided the rebuild effort

New Zealand’s government provides $100,000 of earthquake coverage on every homeowner policy, a measure that has lowered the cost of private insurance and made the country one of the best insured in the world. While the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes will exhaust New Zealand’s $5.9 billion insurance fund, private insurers are paying for the majority of the rebuilding, estimated at $40 billion.

There is no requirement for insurers to offer earthquake coverage under Washington or federal law. The state’s insurance commissioner has said that no more than 15 percent of Washington’s homeowners have quake coverage.

Businesses will need assistance

New Zealand paid businesses impacted by the quake a stipend of $500 a week per full-time employee and $300 a week per part-time employee over six weeks, later extending the payments. The subsidy supported more than 50,000 employees at a cost of $200 million. Officials credit the plan with helping keep small businesses afloat after the disaster.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order in November that directs state agencies to identify ways of making Washington more resilient. The order charges the Department of Commerce to help businesses plan for operating amid disruptions to their supply chains and inventories.