Christchurch needs decisions

by andrew.mcnulty / 20 June, 2011
If the authorities don’t get their act together soon, earthquake anger could bubble over.
Greg Bowker/NZ Herald


Pity Christchurch. Not that pity is what the embattled citizens of New Zealand’s second-largest city most want, of course. Sympathy? They will take that. Assistance? Definitely. But most urgently, they want decisions, money and action.

From the start, everyone knew this would be a long haul, although back in September when the first big earthquake struck, no one would have predicted that a much more devastating quake would come and bring with it such a terrible human toll. Now, geologists and geophysicists have sketched likely scenarios for the frequency and size of earthquakes to come, based on computer modelling, but no one can say for certain when or how they will strike.

That is something people in Christchurch know they have to live with. No one has control over tectonic forces. What is harder for people to accept – especially those whose homes have been badly damaged or whose properties have proved subject to liquefaction, slips or rockfall – is that many of them still have no certainty about the future of their properties, neighbourhoods and suburbs and so they cannot make plans. It is the not knowing that is weakening people’s resilience more quickly than the aftershocks that keep on coming.

The aftermath of the September and February earthquakes has been characterised by an outpouring of support and efforts to clean up and make the affected areas of the city as workable as circumstances allow. Millions of hours of labour have been spent on that task and there is nothing to suggest the local authorities, utility companies, Government, CERA and every other agency are not totally committed to the job. But residents are justified in their growing frustration.

Naturally, it is important that decisions, especially those around abandoning whole streets and suburbs, are made fully and with as much information as possible. The two big aftershocks last Monday will, in some cases, have reinforced the geotechnical conclusions that professionals were already coming to about which areas should never be built on again.

But there are thousands of other properties where the land itself is not part of the problem. There are whole streets of damaged houses whose occupants have been forced to find accommodation elsewhere, and who have not received a dollar from the Earthquake Commission or their insurance companies. That process seems unnecessarily and inexplicably tortuous. These people will have seen with dismay the news that the EQC and Insurance Council will ask the High Court for a declaratory judgment to clarify when the maximum EQC cover of $115,000 for a damaged property is reinstated after a natural disaster.

The idea that the insurance process could get bogged down in court action will, to many Christ­church residents, be as hard to cope with as another big aftershock. Thousands of homeowners are awaiting their $115,000 EQC payout, with the difference between that and the total damage to be made up by their insurance companies. Those with insurance cover are owed that money today. They were owed it yesterday. Until that money starts to flow, many Christchurch residents are stuck with no options and caught in their temporary accommodation with time counting down as to how long their insurer will cover the rent. In that hiatus lies the risk that frustration will turn to anger and even civil disobedience.

It is plain that some decisions about abandoning areas have already been made, but the Government does not want to announce them until it can offer people extra information, alternatives and assistance. That might be well meaning but residents are desperate for solid information, even if it is bad news. If their house is never going to be rebuilt, they want to be told that plainly, and now. It is their right to have that information as soon as those decisions are made.

There is no “best-practice” guide for anyone to follow in managing a disaster that keeps on keeping on. It is a matter of applying scientific information, common sense, good judgment, intelligence, compassion and effort. And yes, patience, too. But patience can be maintained only as long as authorities retain the goodwill and support of the people they are serving. There is a growing sense that, like some of Christchurch’s most famous landmarks, that support is collapsing.
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