I have noticed that those struggling with the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes are having an increasingly hard time staying focused on the resolution of their claims. It is not only my personal observation but this is substantiated in recent reports and articles published in the Press and elsewhere. Why are there so many people in Canterbury still not doing well? Has five years been enough for Cantabrians? Are people giving up? Are Cantabrians suffering from recovery fatigue?
One thing is for sure – it has been a long wait getting to the ‘half way point’. It is fair to say that the long wait has for many been just too long. There is nothing more devastating to an individual’s motivation than ‘a wait too long’. Just like a rubber band, the long wait can stretch our resilience to a point where it’s ready to snap.
It is a fact of life that most disasters hit unexpectedly. The same goes for the Christchurch earthquakes; they took most Cantabrians by total surprise. All of a sudden widespread devastation was right in our faces, we saw buildings collapse, we witnessed how the injured and the dead were pulled out from underneath the rubble, services in disarray. Simultaneously the disaster triggered all the good-will people could muster. People stood up for each other, embraced and comforted each other; sat down and cried together. “Be strong” became the slogan in the face of adversity. And people committed to the notion of “to sticking it out” together, whatever that meant. Nationally and abroad Cantabrians were praised for their resilience (a word since often heard). And there was a firm belief amongst Cantabrians that, in the end, “everything would be alright”.
Now, after more than five years, one might ask “Where has all that resilience gone?” What is left of this initial drive and enthusiasm? Was it post-disaster euphoria? What has happened to all our innovative ideas shared together at the beginning? Most of those ideas have not come to fruition, or have been ignored or have simply dissolved in the ether. The initial protests have also died down. The numbers of concerned citizens seems to have dwindled. Where have all the people gone? How many have simply pulled out or given up hope? Some speak of apathy. Quake jargon like ‘the rebuild’, ‘the recovery’ and ‘regenerate’ no longer tug at the strings of our imagination. Yet, according to the statistics thousands are still struggling with their insurers. Struggling Cantabrians feel isolated and in desperation have turned to social media for mutual support as the official channels do not assist them, nor solve their problems.
What are the factors that feed into why people bow out? I hear people blaming their fellow Cantabrians for their apathy. But is that a fair comment? I would like to list a few of the circumstances that might cause people to “give up”. My thoughts on what I call “recovery fatigue” are primarily meant as food for thought and I leave it to the reader to judge their legitimacy.
In the first instance, it is a devastating experience to see your house badly damaged or even completely destroyed by the earthquakes. The loss of one’s home is for most the loss of their former life. With the earthquakes many lost their sense of place. This causes people considerable grief. Those involved in grief counselling know that in the course of time people gradually detach themselves from the actual impact, and the loss their home had on their lives. This subtle process of detachment is a way of protecting oneself from the very impact of that event. As life goes on people have had ‘to let go’ in order to accept the new normal.
It may also happen that another incident draws the attention away from the distress of initial event. The event may have caused people to lose jobs. The loss of a job makes looking for work elsewhere in the country necessary. Moving away from the place where disaster struck, not only creates a physical distance, but it also creates a distance in the psychological sense. The disaster itself is no longer in their face, emotionally it now sits at an arm’s length. It can also be that the initial event is overshadowed by another devastating event. A family member may have become seriously ill or may have died. And that event overrides the mayhem caused by the earthquakes as people redirect their attention to another grave situation. Both events become “too much” to bear and people just give up. People bow out because they run out of financial resources. There are many stories of people who have had to accept a cash settlement, because they could no longer keep paying the rates, mortgage on their destroyed homes, while, at the same time, having to pay for alternative accommodation. This is a financial burden too big to bear.
After the earthquakes some affected Cantabrians were offered accommodation by generous friends or families. Of course this was meant as a temporary solution until the underlying issues were resolved. But as time dragged on, the generosity of family and friends may sometimes wear thin. They too want to carry on with their lives. Consequently the affected have had to look for alternative solutions, which are not always readily available. Some have even ended up ’living rough’ on the City streets.
The collapse of the social infrastructure in earthquake affected areas has deprived people of their community surroundings and amenities upon which they once relied. Services collapsed, schools and shops closed down. As neighbors (who once supported each other) began to move away, those who remained became even more isolated and deprived of the support of those who would have otherwise helped them ‘get through’.
As people age while waiting for a resolution, ageing itself can eat away at one’s resilience. The urgency of a proper resolution becomes even greater as one ages – because time feels as though it is running out for those who are in their later years. Urgency for resolution at the age of seventy, may be quite differently experienced from the way that urgency is experienced when one is edging toward 80. At that age people may have given up hope of seeing any immediate change in their situation. They may have different things on their mind and their priorities are reset. Many simply die waiting.
Nothing can have a more devastating effect on one’s motivation than the struggle that comes with not being fairly heard nor respectfully treated. One does not have to be an expert to understand the extent of the damage to one’s house. Most owners know the history of their properties well and are often well aware of the seriousness of the damage. The constant flow of expert reports, the reassessments of earlier assessments, the constant shift in costings, extended discussions between the insurers and strings of experts about whether or not the property is “over the cap” or “under cap” has driven many Cantabrians to the edge. Many feel exhausted by the delays this expert reporting process causes and many people find themselves in the position of having to constantly defend the degree of the damage their home has sustained over and against loss adjusters who see only historic or cosmetic damage – refusing to delve into the structural issues at hand. People have to seek legal action to get their issues properly addressed, driving up the costs for the homeowner. In a way it is as shocking as it is ironic that having disregarded earlier warnings and protests, EQC and the insurers now have to revisit thousands of homes to reassess and repair their shoddy repairs. This stretches the resilience of those affected even further, as their wait is extended potentially for another one or two more years. Many simply bow out, take a settlement and sell up to cover costs.
This tragic mis-alignment of expectations in Canterbury has led to serious disappointment amongst its residents. The lack of leadership regarding the recovery, the infighting between those in authority, between local and national government, the approach of the insurance industry to this disaster, the interference of CERA, the lack of a cohesive recovery plan based on the input by citizens, the way flooding issues have or rather have not been addressed, the handling of the people in the Red zone and the manner in which the reinstatement of many homes and businesses was executed, have seriously fallen short of what people in Canterbury ever expected. The responses to all those issues mentioned and the decisions made by the authorities responsible for the follow up were never clear-cut, but instead ambiguous and always left one with the feeling that they were serving another agenda other than the one of relating to affected citizens. This mismatch of expectations has been very exhausting and tiring, wearing people down. This no doubt drained the resilience of many Cantabrians over the past five years.
For the reasons noted above- social media began to play an increasingly important role. Not only could people blow off steam and get rid of their frustrations, but they felt that they were ‘heard’ and responded to. They discovered and became part of an online community that cared by sharing. No wonder social media has played an important, if not a critical role in helping Cantabrians deal with the complexities of quake recovery. Social media has filled the hole left by main stream media and earthquake recovery authorities.
Over time the recovery for many Cantabrians has become an ever moving target. That too is exhausting………no wonder people give up. Is it any surprise people accept settlements that leave them out of pocket? Others blame them for their apathy, but I for one, have come to understand this recovery fatigue many Cantabrians suffer from.