How long can one consider oneself a victim of a natural disaster? Is it forever? Is it valid to say that as long as you experience yourself as a victim you remain a victim of that particular event? I dare say that on entering our fifth year after the September 4 2010 earthquake Cantabrians can no longer consider themselves earthquake victims. We no longer have to recuperate from the aftershocks in the true sense of the word. Maybe we need to front up to the reality that, apart from a little tremor, the devastating and life threatening aftershocks themselves are history. Yes, we still carry the memories of people bonding together facing the devastation, the pain, and the loss of lives in those early days. They will linger. Those times will not be easily forgotten. But “over time” we have moved on. We commemorated the dead. We have named and honored those who lent us a helping hand in time of our greatest need. And to some extent it brought us closure.
Yet there is another “earthquake” story that is far from over. It is a story that needs to be told. Why? Because during these four years the ball game has drastically changed from Cantabrians coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster to a man afflicted disaster of some magnitude. Today thousands of Cantabrians find themselves in the crossfire between the opinions of the directives and the interests of local and national authorities, of conflicting assessments of their properties by their insurance companies; their assessors, structural engineers and quantity surveyors disagreeing with policyholder experts over the extent of damage and the costs thereof. At the same time another tip of an iceberg is emerging: an increasing number of shoddy repairs are appearing. And because of all this the propaganda surrounding the rebuild of Christchurch isn’t what it seems.
A date like September the 4th marks a good date to throw around some statistics. How well are we doing? The local newspaper informs us that Peter Townsend estimates that “just 10 percent of the rebuild is complete” (The Press, Sept 4th, 2014). That is a shocking statement, apparently we are not doing all that well at all! Mr Townsend is the CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce and is known for having a good and down-to-earth handle on the developments regarding the recovery/rebuild here in Christchurch. In the same article we are provided with the latest statistics on the rebuild. We learn from this article that “claims settled” does not necessarily mean that the repairs or rebuilds have actually eventuated. There is a big 40 per cent gap between “settled” and “complete”. What are we to make of this? With the words/phrases being used we are challenged to read between the lines. The Prime Minister, Mr John Key, recently visited Christchurch and was happy to announce during the Press leaders’ debate on Sept 2nd that the rebuild was now gaining momentum as 90 per cent of all claims had been settled. In short, if we take his word on the situation “we are doing pretty well in Christchurch”! Yet, another gap opens up, suggesting that only 10 per cent of all claims are unresolved. What constitutes the difference between the 90 per cent of the PM and the 10 per cent of Mr Townsend? We need to dig a little deeper.
How did Mr Key get to his 90 per cent? His figure is based on the recent numbers published by the Insurance Council and CERA and is composed of combining the number of claims “settled” (50 per cent) and the number of claims that had reached agreement with insurers but (that agreement) had not been completed (40 per cent). In total these two categories make up the 90 per cent Mr Key confidently referred to.
The Insurance Council considers that 40 per cent of the claims where agreement has been reached (although that agreement is still pending) as “resolved”. In fact these “resolved” claims are on the waiting list for cash settlements or for the reinstatement (whether it be a repair or a rebuild) of their property. “Unresolved” are the really difficult cases, they make up for the remaining 10 per cent of claims. So what we are looking at here in Christchurch is an immense problem. It is a gap of 80 per cent! That is the gap identified by Mr. Townsend and Mr Key. It is the gap between the 10 per cent of claims “complete” and the 10 per cent of claims which present a range of complex issues. The 80 per cent between those two 10 percentages forms a vast category of claims ranging from not being properly completed to claims which are resolved but where the agreement is still pending. That seems to be the true picture of “the Christchurch rebuild” 4 years after the September 4, 2010 earthquake. You don’t read much about that in the papers!
On different levels the consequences of this slow rebuild/recovery are multiple. Businesses move elsewhere, people wear out, give up and settle for less than they were entitled to. The numbers of claimants who accept a cash settlement outweighs the number of people who want a full reinstatement of their house – by far. Four out of five claimants accept and prefer a cash settlement. Some resort to advisory groups, others engage in legal action.
Many see cracks reappearing in the linings of their walls; indicating that the repairs may not have been up to scratch. We may be in for a battle to get the repairs of the repairs properly done. It is clear that these developments reflect increasingly badly on the behavior of the insurance industry toward their clients. In the same article in which Mr Townsend made his comments I quote Leanne Curtis from the Canterbury Communities’ Earthquake Recovery Network, that she has recently noticed “a breakdown of trust between claimants and EQC and insurers” (the Press 4th). And Vicky Hyde from the Insurance Watch is of the opinion that there “is still a lot simmering anger about how this whole thing has been handled”. The gathering organized by TVNZ3 at Shirley’s’ High School on September the 4, 2014 and attended by nearly a thousand claimants was testimony to that. As we wake up, many discover that after four years, we have become the victims of a man-made aftershock that will keep us struggling for the years to come. Gradually we start to understand that we find ourselves in a situation where Cantabrians live in two realities. There is a rift developing between those in Canterbury who got their lives sorted (or thought they did) and who have moved on and those whose lives are still on hold and will be for a longer period of time. I fear the consequences of a growing disconnect between the two. In terms of the recovery/rebuild, the rift between these two realities will gradually define the developments in Christchurch as a tale of two cities. This is shaping up to be a shameful chapter in New Zealand’s short history.