Lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes

In light of the disruption caused to many businesses from the central New Zealand earthquakes last year, the Forum asked our Canterbury-based CEOs to share some of their earthquake insights.

All of New Zealand is exposed to the risks of significant natural disasters and last year's earthquakes were a reminder of the need to take stock of our business continuity, and staff safety and welfare arrangements.

Use this list as a prompt to review your and your organisation's preparedness.


Top things I’d tell another CEO about preparing for major quakes:

  • Leaders need to focus on people and their private lives. People will not be concerned about your business when their own basic needs are not met.
  • People will be concerned about the safety of the building. Saying an engineering has signed it off is not enough. You need to take them through what the engineer did and let them ask questions.
  • The emotional (health) impacts will continue long after the immediate physical (safety) aspects are dealt with.
  • Texting seems to get up and running faster than any other form of communication.
  • Have a plan and practise it - including things not going right. Prepare to be agile and to work with others
  • Pay and job certainty is important at an unsettling time - consider how you will pay people and give them confidence they will at least have money coming in while things get sorted.


Things we did after the February 2011 earthquake that in hindsight wished we had done after the September 2010 one:

  • Attached all furniture to the wall securely, and made sure air conditioning units, lights and ceiling panels were earthquake proofed.
  • Put a pallet of water in our supply store and monitored it each month to ensure it was ready for use in an emergency.
  • Had good contact details for staff - put all staff business and private cell numbers on the phones of the management team so we could access everyone while the internet connection was down.
  • Introduced a policy where all company vehicles must be kept half full of diesel/petrol and began to monitor this.
  • Ensured all colleagues have an emergency plan on how to get home if transport networks are broken or gridlocked, where whānau will meet and how/who they get in touch with to know what the work situation is.
  • Got all buildings and other structures fully checked out by structural engineers.
  • Got everyone to take their laptops home as often as possible - if you can't access a building it's useful to have the laptop at home and available.


Support after the quake:

  • Get to all staff to assess their wellbeing and state of their affairs (house, school, family/friends). Big but vital job for the HR team.
  • Help people get access to food, water, toilets, washing facilities. If you want people to go out and work for you they need their own and their families' basic needs met.
  • Give staff frequent and timely updates about what's happening, and what’s being done to ensure their health and safety and business continuity.
  • Do not rush to make decisions - understand the true situation as best as possible before any decisions are made and find out that is really happening from trusted sources.
  • Prepare for aftershocks - some of them big - you could be in emergency response mode several times.
  • Recognise when your managers are exhausted and send them home. Look at how you can rotate managers or get the directors to chip in and help, so managers can get time off when they need it - including yourself.
  • Recognise that people will respond differently to the shock and impact of a major quake. Don't make assumptions that just because someone has always been "strong and confident" that they will be more resilient.