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Why Wellington shakes 200 times a year. On `Pacific rim of fire,' New Zealand told to brace for major quake

Few capital cities in the world are at greater risk of a devastating earthquake than Wellington, New Zealand. The country sits on the ``Pacific rim of fire,'' a belt of geologic activity that subjects California, Chile, Alaska, Japan, and the Philippines to the same threat.

More than 200 earthquakes a year are felt in this South Pacific nation and many more minor ones are recorded by sensitive devices. The country's neighbors in Australia call New Zealand the ``shaky isles.''

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Wellington, which has a metropolitan population of about 320,000, lies in the center of an earthquake zone. There have been 20 large earthquakes, registering more than seven on the Richter scale (an explosive energy equivalent to 121/2 Hiroshima bombs) in this region since 1843.

That averages out to one every seven years. But there have been only two in the last half century. ``New Zealand is overdue for disaster,'' predicts a leaflet issued by the local Civil Defense organization. It is a thought that few Wellingtonians want to entertain.

But neither does the national government, claims Wira Gardiner, the country's former Civil Defense director. Mr. Gardiner resigned last April in disgust after less than two years in the job because the government would not provide him the funds he thinks necessary to run an effective program.

``As things are, we could not cope with a major disaster in New Zealand and people would die for the lack of preparation, planning, and money,'' Gardiner says.

Civil Defense currently receives an annual budget of 1.8 million New Zealand dollars (less than $900,000 US) for its designated role of protecting the nation's 3.3 million people in the event of a national emergency.

The budget is so small, funds for publicity campaigns have come from the the nation's Lottery Board since 1979. The board, which makes grants to charities and to social and sporting organizatons, has since stopped its contribution, saying that civil defense should be a government responsibility.

Announcing his resignation, Gardiner said: ``I am unable to make adequate provision for public safety.'' He said there is no national contingency plan for a major earthquake here, which could devastate the capital.

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Civil Defense Minister Peter Tapsell has dismissed Gardiner's claims, saying public officials always want more money than they get.

``We have the basis of a very good Civil Defense organization,'' he says. ``I have no reason to believe that lives are at stake, or potentially at stake.''

Yet Gardiner says there have not been enough funds to mount a national civil defense exercise for nine years. A mock earthquake exercise in Wellington last November revealed deficiencies in Civil Defense procedures.

Authorities have warned Wellingtonians to make their own emergency plans, including stocking up on canned supplies. They warn that roads could be blocked and utilities disrupted for at least 36 hours following a quake.

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