Preparing for the long haul in Canterbury

by Listener Archive / 01 July, 2011
We need to prepare for more pain following the Canterbury earthquakes.

Following the September and January earthquakes in Canterbury, a constant refrain from all over the country was “What can I do to help? How can I contribute to the recovery?” No one should stop asking that question, but all taxpayers can rest assured they will be contributing. They have no choice. The disaster – or series of disasters – is of such magnitude that even now, about 10 months after the first quake struck, the full permutations are still unfolding.

The greatest loss will always be to those whose family members died. No other loss is comparable. But the insurance problems that have emerged, exposing property owners, ratepayers and taxpayers to even greater risk, are just one more cost to bear.

The Government’s recent announcement of a plan to buy properties in Christchurch’s suburban red zones, where land probably needs to be abandoned, is transparent and equitable, yet many homeowners in that zone will nevertheless be left in desperate situations. The case of Brian Frisken in this week’s issue (see page 21) highlights the problem. The rateable value on his home and land is $222,000. He thinks it’s unlikely he will find a comparable replacement home in Christchurch for that sum, and he is probably right.

His case illustrates the brutal truth about the disaster. For all that the rest of the country is sympathetic, for all the digging by volunteers of various “armies” and the support of charities, businesses, individuals, councils and the Government, it is unrealistic – impossible, even – for affected Christchurch residents to be fully compensated for their losses.

There may be a few exceptions, but for street after street of homeowners, the earthquakes represent not just a national disaster but a private one, too. They will lose money – possibly a lot of money in some cases – and for some, especially retirees, there will be no way to regain their pre-earthquake assets in their lifetime.

Many families will take a generation or more to recover, just as a new generation of taxpayers will in time be paying the bills for Canterbury’s recovery and reconstruction.

What’s more, the suffering is far from over. Some of the property owners in the CBD will almost certainly go broke. Discussions over what a new Christchurch skyline should look like seem, for now, mostly a fantasy.

Meanwhile, the offers to people in the red zones, and news that those in the green zone can get on with their repairs, still leave tens of thousands of people, particularly those in the orange and white zones, with no financial, physical or emotional resolution to their predicaments.

On top of that, the insurance situation is far from established, with taxpayers and ratepayers highly exposed in the event of any more damage to civic infrastructure before reinsurance can be arranged.

For many people who have not visited the stricken areas ­of Christchurch, the true enormity of the disaster is still being revealed. The amount of land damage in an urban area is unprecedented for any earthquake in New Zealand’s history.
The ability of such a small country to pay for the repairs will continue to be sorely tested – it’s tough enough at any time, let alone in this post-recession environment. Everyone needs to be braced for a very long haul.

It was always known that this phase of the recovery would be especially difficult. As winter starts to bite, making it harder for those residents struggling on without amenities like sewerage, it may be helpful to remember how much has already been achieved. And the commitment to make the city self-sufficient again is undiminished, although there seems to be a new dose of realism about exactly how long that process will take, and the cost of it.

In the midst of the gloom, there are still many examples of generosity, stoicism and grace. Steve and Marie Davies of Kaiapoi (see also page 21) have had their home demolished and do not know whether their family will be able to rebuild on their property.

Nevertheless Steve Davies is grateful “that the people of New Zealand are doing this … It is humbling to know that the country will look after its people. That’s what we’ve got to think about, rather than getting grumpy.”
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