Back to School on Quakes

Written By: - Date published: 12:51 pm, March 12th, 2011 - 29 comments
Categories: disaster, Social issues - Tags:

A comment from a foreign national in Japan caught my attention last night. She was a language teacher in a school and remarked that she was in the safest possible building as schools in Japan have extra earthquake reinforcement, ie over and above the building code as it applies to other buildings.

Which got me thinking.

Why not retrofit school buildings in NZ to an extra-ordinary high standard and have them double up as emergency centers in the event of a natural disaster? So for example, why not have schools fitted with a number of land lines given that cell phone networks appear to be somewhat fragile in the face of quakes? And why not install sizable septic tanks that sewerage could be diverted to when sewerage systems break? And have robust  fresh water storage facilities on site? And independent power supply capabilities? Why not designate schools as permanant repositories of disaster provisions (water, deydrated or tinned food, blankets, tents, toileteries etc)?

I’m guessing it would afford some  presence of mind to know that your children were in one of the safest possible places in the event of a quake hitting during day time. And surely it would be preferable in a disaster to know that one should congregate in a properly provisioned local school in the first instance, rather than ‘hanging around’ in wrecked houses or parks waiting for the ad-hoc system of relief centers we have at present to kick in?

There are schools in ‘every’ suburb. They have the facilities to cope with large numbers of people. ‘Everyone’ knows where they are. They are within walking distance for most.

If all schools had a latent autonomous capacity built in to them, then a lot of time and energy presently spent shipping supplies and relief into an area could be saved and a degree of  discomfort and confusion as experienced by people after a disaster avoided.

As communities, we already have the basis of a post disaster infrastucture in place. I see no reason not to develop it.




29 comments on “Back to School on Quakes”

  1. anarcho 1

    Brilliant suggestion Bill. You are right, essentially we are not at all prepared and that disaster response is haphazard and full of holes. This idea needs to grow and become reality.

  2. Lanthanide 2

    Just a note, the problem with phone networks (particularly cellular) is the back-end and central sites that aren’t set up to process that level of simultaneous loading. Adding extra lines to schools would help for areas where phone lines are physically damaged (which seems to be in areas of high liquefaction – not all of NZ is susceptible to that), but otherwise adding extra ‘last mile’ capacity doesn’t achieve anything.

    • Alwyn 2.1

      I don’t know how the networks really work but wouldn’t land lines be more, rather than less, susceptible to damage in an earthquake. Cables, whether overhead or underground would surely be damaged in exactly the same way that power lines are wouldn’t they. Thus we would probably have a whole lot of land line phones in a school which are all unusable because the telephone cables have been damaged.
      The cell phone coverage works in the same way as radios do and as long as you have some battery charge they would surely have a much greater chance of being in working order as you would only need to be in range of one working cell phone tower for them to work.
      As you say the main problem is that everyone tries to use their cell phones at once.

  3. good idea. a cheap way to seed communities with safe zones.

  4. logie97 4

    Many primary schools built in the 40’s and 50’s had air raid shelters. They got filled in of course as time passed. Actually, most schools already have a designation of “CD assembly point” – boards of trustees have probably allowed the plaques to fade/fall – their priorities have been elsewhere…

    captcha: arithmetic

    • toad 4.1

      At least they don’t have nuclear fallout shelters.

      Let’s hope the experts get it under control and it doesn’t go that way in Japan, but there are several nuclear reactors looking pretty ominous there at the moment.

      I’m feeling really glad that New Zealanders, me included, resisted the push from some (most notably Bill Birch) to go down that path in the 1970s and 1980s. Imagine what could have happened had we had a nuclear power plant on the outskirts of Christchurch.

      • It would have been shaken back and forth for a bit, and after some safety inspections would have continued supplying power to the city. I guess you mean, “imagine what could have happened had we had a nuclear power plant on the outskirts of Christchurch built without reference to the fact that NZ is an earthquake zone.”

        • todd

          I’m with you Toad, thank god we don’t have to deal with a leaking nuclear power plant. In many ways New Zealand is similar in geography to Japan. If similarly situated, the Fukushima plant would be located in Christchurch and any potential radiation fallout would travel up over the top of the south Island and over the entire North Island.

          I’m pretty sure they knew about the many Earthquakes in Japan before they started to build Fukushima back in 1966 Psycho Milt. Let this be a lesson to all those pro nuclear power advocates that it is not safe, no matter what design implementations are undertaken. The Earthquake might have killed a lot of people, but a full scale meltdown at Fukushima has the potential to kill a lot more.

  5. Just Me 5

    Personally I’ve always thought Marae are the most logical place for Civil defence due to typically they’re already all setup for catering food to large groups. One of the other issues with retrofitting schools is the age and quality of many. From my experience my primary and secondary schools were mostly made up of prefab/tempary class rooms that had already been there for 20 years and my intermediate was originally built by the US as a rehabilitation centre for GI’s wounded during the Pacific campaign.

    • handle 5.1

      That’s a good point about marae. You would have to add large kitchen and dining facilities to any schools that did not have them. Or use both schools and marae.

    • LynW 5.2

      Wonderful idea Bill and to address Just Me’s comments re state of some schools…all the more reason to improve and strengthen them! What a wonderful way to get communities working together … Marae or school depending on the most suitable option in individual locations. I can see so many positives to this suggestion.

  6. Yes this is an innovative, positive idea that i support – well done bill.

  7. ianmac 7

    An advantage is that most Primary schools seem to be single-storied. This would immediately be an advantage and would be much easier to retro-fit strength. Many are as Logie says, are already CD Assembly points.

  8. would also be a more effective and useful government spending plan to re-prime the economy than, say, a cycleway

  9. I think all of NZ needs to up their preparation for major disasters, earthquakes being one of them. PS about the comment on the cycleway, that idea was before the earthquakes.

    • Lanthanide 9.1

      “that idea was before the earthquakes.”

      Which is the whole point. NZ has known about earthquakes being a problem for a long time. If Jonkey had wanted to implement a policy that would actually have provided employment and stimulus to the economy, retrofitting 1000 primary schools throughout the country to act as high-quality emergency shelters would’ve been a good choice.

      But the government is more interested in sexy ideas that are cheap and don’t provide any real benefits to anyone, as long as they sound good.

  10. Colonial Viper 10

    All we need now is a Ministry of Works and Development to design and build such schools.

  11. ZeeBop 11

    Children are the future, Japan being a world leader respects its citizens need to know their children are safe. Whereas in NZ we build a world class art centre, considerate of liquefaction in ChCh that would double as a rescue centre – closely located where councillors and business leaders can get to easily. This is because unlike Japan, NZ is betting that business and politicians will lead us to better economic wealth – who the hell ever believed that… …we have huge child poverty, teen suicide, exporting out young skilled indebted overseas, why would we care about the kids, we want them gone as fast as possible given the current legislative mix. Hell why not charge them for seeing a doctor, oops we already do, wonderful. NZ War on children continues.

  12. Ms X 12

    captcha: worthwhile

  13. Jenny 13

    Toilets, showers, water supplies, back up generator power, hardened phone lines.

    But as Just Me commented, the one facility that schools, which even with retrofitting would lack is a workable kitchen and cafeteria.

    Maybe this would be good time to introduce staffed working cafeterias into schools. This doesn’t seem to be a problem in US or UK schools.

    • Bill 13.1

      My experience of school led me to over look the fact that NZ schools don’t and never did have fully functioning kitchens making a three course lunch for however many pupils and teachers there are.

      Not a problem. Bring back, or introduce school lunches. Proper ones. Cooked by kitchen staff and paid for by those that can afford to pay and free to those who can’t. Wonder what the spin off in health benefits would be?

    • KJT 13.2

      Every High school I have been in has a cafeteria and staff kitchen and most have a home Ec wing with all the requirements for a fully functioning restaurant.
      Primary schools have at least a functioning kitchenette for staff.

      • handle 13.2.1

        High schools are better prepared but a kitchenette won’t cater for a couple of hundred people.

        Healthy school lunches would be a constructive way to get at least one good meal a day into everyone and teach some good habits. Maybe cheaper than taking GST off fruit and veges?

    • Vicky32 13.3

      In the 60s, my single story girls’ high school had a ‘cooking’ classroom that would have done sterling duty!
      I don’t know if it’s still there now – I don’t know if kids do cooking any more, or homecraft as it was called…
      The problem with marae is that they seem to be on the outskirts on town – in Rotorua at the time I am thinking of, they were… which is good for people living in that area, but bad for those without cars living more centrally…

  14. Adrian 14

    Am I the oldest bugger here?. Schools used to be built by the Min of Works just for these events, they were built extra strong to be shelters in emergencies.

  15. quasimodo 15

    All we have to do now is to elect the right government ..

  16. Armchair Critic 16

    Good thinking Bill.
    I’ll also point out that many schools have:
    – a frontage onto a significant (at a local level) road, which provides a wider access corridor for trucks, ambulances etc.
    – multiple road access points, so if one point of access is damaged, others may be available.
    – a large field, which is quite flat and free of obstructions and therefore suitable for helicopter access. They are also big targets for air drops.
    What we need, to use schools as you suggest (and in addition to the cooking facilities), includes:
    – high speed internet to every school
    – plugs for portable generators (big ones) at every school
    – rainwater tanks at every school
    – secondary power generation capacity at every school – solar, wind or both.
    Some schools still have boilers and a supply of fuel. The move to phase them out and use heat-pumps seems short-sighted, because the ability to heat a space independent of the electricity network, in the middle of a New Zealand winter, would be valuable.
    Not sure about large septic tanks – because septic tanks are funny things that only work properly in quite specific conditions. They aren’t really suitable for installation in towns or cities. Maybe a dual use as storage for water for playing fields when not being used as a septic tank, with a smaller septic tank to hold the bugs needed to get the bigger septic tank working quickly in an emergency. Finally, you couldn’t house people (in tents etc.) over the septic tank field.

  17. Vicky32 17

    Absolutely brilliant idea! (I am reassured to know that at least when he is at work, my son in Wellington, is fine!) He works at the main Wellington hospital..
    The school idea is a good one!

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