Christchurch one year on

by Fiona Rae / 25 February, 2012
One year after the earthquake that killed 185 people, Rebecca Macfie surveys the city she loves, lives in and grieves for.


In Aranui’s Meon St, a solitary worker in a road sweeper is cleaning dried silt out of the gutter, causing it to rise in a cloud and resettle elsewhere on the street, or drift through the open windows of nearby homes. It seems a futile, go-nowhere endeavour. In this quarter of the city at least, it’s a reasonable motif for the state of Christ­church’s recovery one year on from the deadly February 22 earthquake. Here, and everywhere else in the east and south, the roads remain in Third World condition. Workers labour in little high-vis clusters to fill cracks and potholes, but it’s mostly patch-up work that lasts a few weeks until the weather and traffic cause fresh ruptures.

In my days of travelling around the most savagely affected areas – suburbs like New Brighton, Avondale, Dallington, Wainoni, Redcliffs and Sumner (not to mention my own badly battered street in St Martins, close to the February 22 epicentre) – I do not see a house that is undamaged, yet nor do I see a single builder at work.

Everyone is waiting in their colour-coded corners for the rebuild to begin. Some red-zoners have been able to take their payout and move on, but many others are locked in rounds of insurance assessments and a desperate search for affordable land (see story on the Faulkners and Helsloots over the page).

The orange- and white-zoners – 2753 households – are still waiting to be told whether their land is fit to rebuild on. The blue-zoners were told last June that they were green and therefore good to go, and then told four months later that because their land is prone to liquefaction they were now members of a new “Technical Category 3” – a classification of do-your-head-in complexity that Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel calls “a new limbo”.

Then there are the yellow-zoners, who are one notch down from the blue-zoners on the complexity gradient. And there are people, like my family, finally released from the white zone to green late last year, but with no idea when their insurers will honour their obligations to fix the severely damaged homes.

The insurance companies claim they are revving up the rebuild effort, but they’re going about it in a manner to suit themselves, not their policyholders. The upshot is that the areas that have suffered the most extreme damage and the greatest need will wind up waiting longest. A house with a broken patio and cracked plasterboard in wealthy Avonhead (on the city’s lightly damaged west) will be fixed long before – possibly years before – an uninhabitable house on blue-zoned land in Aranui.

From the insurers’ point of view, it’s an entirely rational approach – they want to invest in properties on the least vulnerable land, furthest from the ongoing shakes – but it’s a grossly inequitable one.

Behind all this is a financial time bomb for thousands of displaced householders, whose insurance cover for alternative accommodation is running out. Under most policies, insurers will pay rent only for a year or so. But repairing all the broken houses could take four to five years, the insurers say. They are delegating the cost of the delay to the Government – which will pay a subsidy of up to $330 a week to those who have used up their insurance provision – and to homeowners, who in most cases will have to top up the subsidy to meet the rising cost of rent, as well as pay the mortgage on their damaged homes.

Is it any wonder that people are angry? Rachael Fonatia, the dynamic but exhausted manager of the Aranui Community Trust, probably speaks for everyone on this side of town: “At what point is enough enough?” she asks. “Where’s the plan?”

The hopeless, hapless Christchurch City Council and its reviled leaders, chief executive Tony Marryatt and Mayor Bob Parker, are only partly to blame for the paralysis but are taking all of the heat. The main reason nothing is happening is that the insurers want a risk-free rebuild. It is they – more than the city council, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) or the Government – who rule our lives.

Of course, people have left. The question is whether the trickle – the official estimate is that the population has fallen by only 8900 – will turn into a flood as people get worn out from waiting, spooked by the post-December 23 realisation that the ground beneath our feet still can’t be trusted, and anxiety about their jobs. Employment in Canterbury has fallen more than 27,200 since before the September 2010 quake. The longer people wait for substantive signs of recovery, the more their bonds with the city and their neighbourhoods weaken and the easier it becomes to cash up and flee.

People from outside ask if “they” will rebuild the shattered inner city with fabulous modern architecture. I hope so – the opportunity for a brilliant new sustainable urban heart is before us. But “they” are mostly private investors who face gargantuan obstacles, including a hostile insurance and financing environment, nervous tenants and a stupefying lack of direction from above. (Just one example: the Government claims to support the rebuild of the CBD, yet permits Inland Revenue and the Ministry of Social Development – two of the biggest inner-city employers before the quake – to sign up for nine-year leases on the far western outskirts.)

And yet, despite the background thrum of anger and grief and loss, there is something remarkable about the civility and decency with which people are going about this disaster. Recently I sat in on a community meeting in the blue-zoned suburb of Brookhaven – one of dozens of similar gatherings held in hard-hit suburbs over the past 16 months – where more than 500 people crammed into a local church. With their lives and community in limbo, they sat for two hours through complex explanations from insurers, EQC, Cera and the city council about what their land zoning meant. The room was full of stress and worry – everyone wants to know how long it will be before they can move on – but they kept their rage in check, waited their turn to ask questions and were attentive as the earthquake officials gave what appeared to be honest answers.

All over the city, people are coming together to talk and act – in neighbourhood groups, art groups, music groups, groups that beautify the rubble, groups that minister to the vulnerable, groups that are protesting for better performance from the city council.

In the teeth of adversity and destruction, it is this process of community discourse that is holding us together. One year on, Christchurch is on a tortuously slow, rutted and uncertain path to recovery. It is a place of one-step-forward, one-step-sideways frustration, of heroic compassion and creativity, of disappointment and despair, of struggle and determination. Here are some of our stories.

To make a pledge to help the people of Christchurch, go to feb22.co.nz

RED-ZONERS JENNY and ALLAN FAULKNER; REGAN and JOHN HELSLOOT




If Christchurch has a Ground Zero, it is perhaps Waitaki St, Bexley. In the days and weeks after February 22, the street was a swamp of fetid water, silt lay in great drifts against houses and fences, homes sat slumped and broken on the ruined ground. A year on, it remains a scene of utter desolation. Unmown lawns grow up around the windows of abandoned homes, and whirlwinds of dried silt are kicked up in the breeze. The roads and footpaths are smashed. Peering through the windows of some houses we see broken crockery, upended furniture, and food thrown from cupboards and fridges lying as it fell a year ago.

Save for former resident Gary Judd, who is doing a letter-box drop for Project Exodus – a programme run by his church offering to help people relocate their possessions out of the red zone – the street is completely deserted.

Waitaki St has been Allan and Jenny Faulkner’s home for 30 years. They left their leaning and broken house immediately after the February quake, and in June last year the area was red-zoned. With the house a write-off, they’re entitled to a rebuild under their insurance policy, so they have opted to take “option two” under the Government’s red-zone offer – a $96,000 payout (the 2007 rateable value) on their 840sq m section, and a replacement home built by their insurer, AMI.

But their land payout isn’t enough to buy a new section anywhere in Christ­church. As retirees, they can’t – and don’t want to – take on a mortgage to pay the price demanded by land developers. And so they have decided, reluctantly, to leave. They have a daughter in Tauranga who has found a section for $100,000, and they will rebuild there. “At least it will allow us to regain our equity. Otherwise, we just couldn’t find a way forward,” says Jenny. “It means leaving my elderly parents and two other children in Christchurch. We are not leaving out of choice.”



Until now, their insurance policy has covered the cost of renting alternative accommodation, but like thousands of other displaced homeowners around the city, that provision runs out soon and they will have to find the $335 weekly rent from their own reserves, or live with family until they have a home to move into. Because they are leaving the city, they don’t qualify for the Government’s temporary accommodation subsidy for homeowners displaced by earthquake damage. “It’s been really tough. You feel pulled every which way,” says Jenny. She no longer feels grief for the loss of her home, but moving away from friends and community will be painful.

One of those she will leave behind is her best friend and near-neighbour Regan Helsloot, who lives just around the bend in Bexley Rd. Regan, husband John and their two younger children are losing their two-and-a-half-year-old home under the red-zone package. When we knock on their door one dusty afternoon in late January, despair is written across Regan’s face. The family have continued living in the house since the earthquakes – indeed, compared with many around this city, the interior is in pristine condition. But they have endured three rounds of liquefaction and the house has been declared a write-off by their insurer.

But like the Faulkners, their red-zone land payout – $73,000 – doesn’t come close to the price of good land elsewhere in Christchurch. Regan, a part-time cleaner who lost a large chunk of her income when her central-city employer shut down, and John, a truck driver, can’t see a way out of their bind, short of taking on a massive extra mortgage.

Adding to the stress, their insurer, State, has told them the value of their rebuild will be only $1000 per square metre. “You can’t build a house for that,” says Regan. “Our lawyer says the average price is $1500.” They had been hoping for an affordable land-and-home package in a new subdivision on good land on the northeast fringe of the city, but a few days ago were told that project had stalled. Meanwhile, the May deadline for deciding which buyout offer to accept is looming.

Regan’s eyes flood repeatedly with tears as we talk; she says she spent much of the previous night vomiting because of the stress. Aside from the prospect of a serious financial setback, it is simply depressing living in a derelict, dust-blown and abandoned street. Empty houses around them have been looted, and they worry about the security of their own home.

In the absence of a functioning sewerage system, their waste is diverted into a tank on their property, which council workers suck out every day. It often smells, and if the workers are late it overflows. The silt is wreaking havoc on their cars – one set of brake linings has already been wrecked. Despite everything, the Helsloots don’t want to leave Christchurch. Their children are here, and youngest son Daniel is still at high school. “This is home,” says Regan.

COMMUNITY BUILDER MARNIE KENT




"Do you know what?” says Marnie Kent, as if about to make an astonishing revelation. “I’m looking forward to the future of Christ­church. We can, as a community, help shape our city. We just have to have patience and perseverance and I believe we will get through this together.” Kent has enough optimism and energy to make up for those who find theirs flagging under the size and complexity of the city’s crisis. Ever since the quake, she has been a whirlwind of community-building action in her badly damaged suburb of Sumner.

For four weeks she ran a community information hub from the old Sumner School hall (having escaped her damaged home to live in a tent for five weeks with her mother and seven-year-old-daughter Amelia). Then she started a tent school for kids whose schools were closed, which operated three days a week for three weeks. Later, she called a public meeting that spawned a plethora of local action groups focused on disaster response, greening local demolition sites, art, urban design and community gardening.

She was a driver behind the group that developed a concept plan for the rebuild of Sumner Village. As the co-ordinator of the Sumner Community Group, she is working with Neighbourhood Support to set up a network of street co-ordinators whose job is to find out who is in their street, what their needs are and who has what skills.

“So, if we are [cut off], we can access that database of skills and find what’s needed. After the earthquake, I thought Civil Defence were going to come here and help, but they were nowhere to be seen … What I have realised is that we, the residents, are civil defence.” Kent – Australian-born, but with strong family links to Christchurch and Banks Peninsula – has never considered leaving. “I feel grounded here … And Christchurch needs us.”

BUSINESS OWNER ANGE LEONARD




The fish inside Ange and Paul Leonard's inner-city shop, City Seafoods, turned to toxic slime months ago, and the business they built up over seven years remains in a state of suspension a year after they fled. Just before Christmas someone from the city council rang to tell them to clean the place up. Ange says they had tried to get access to the shop in the weeks after the earthquake, but apart from one short visit, they weren't allowed through the cordon.

On the day of the earthquake she got her customers and staff safely out of the shop. Paul raced back from a delivery, and tried – in vain – to save a man crushed in his car by a falling facade. They managed to find new jobs for their workers, drew on their business-interruption insurance to pay their creditors and battled through their contents claim (still unpaid).

"People keep asking us when we will re-open, but it's not that easy," says Ange. Before the quake they had a great location, earning 70% of their revenue from big hotels in the vicinity and 30% from downtown office workers. Now the hotels are mostly gone and the city is a wasteland of demolition sites and dusty, vacant plots. They still don't know if the building they rented is viable. "If we did reopen, there's a 50-50 chance we could go belly up."

Every day Ange searches for alternative properties, but re-establishing in a new location would require a $500,000 investment in chillers and drainage systems. And there is great uncertainty about everything. What will be the outcome of the optimistic plan to guide the rebuild of the central city? Will they be able to get insurance? What will happen to rents? "It's a big risk to go back into it." Her sister in Nelson urges them to leave, but it's not straightforward. Aside from the business, there's the investment in their home which, while liveable, has suffered structural damage and they don't know when it will be rebuilt or repaired. "We've looked at whether we should up and leave, but this is our home. Our family is here."

Optimistically, she says Christchurch should have a "fantastic" future. The question is: how long will it take? "You have to think the city will come back bigger and better, but it won't be in two or three years, it will be in excess of five or 10 years."

ARTISTIC DIRECTOR ROSS GUMBLEY




The Court Theatre’s Ross Gumbley was on the third floor of the Arts Centre when the shaking began at 12.51pm on February 22. He thought the floor was about to give way beneath his feet, that stone would come crashing down on his head. When he discovered the building was still standing and that he was alive, he finished composing a difficult email he’d been sweating over all morning.

Moments later, standing outside the Gothic Revival precinct, he realised that the Court – which had been based in the Arts Centre for 40 years – would not be going back. He made his way home through the chaotic streets, hunkered down and fell into five days of gloom. He would meet with Court chief executive Philip Aldridge and discuss survival strategies for the theatre, but they would just wind up feeling glum in each other’s company, recalls Gumbley. “Normally, we’re both annoyingly optimistic. It was totally uncharacteristic.”

Then, on day six, the mood changed. “We thought, screw this, let’s go. Then we found this place and it was foot to the floor.” “This place” is the old grain warehouse in the backstreets of Addington that they transformed in nine months into a temporary new home for the Court, opening their first post-quake show just before Christmas. Under the vast roof of the 2800sq m warehouse they have built an auditorium and a labyrinth of portable wardrobe and administration offices, installed a couple of shipping containers to serve as a box office and bar, and set up a workshop.

As 70% of the theatre’s income is earned through the box office, Gumbley says the survival of the Court depended on continuity. And he knew if it was forced into abeyance for an extended period, it would bleed vital costume and set-building skills that have been handed down through generations. “In that sense we were almost like an island of knowledge that was at risk of sinking without trace, and if we had to start up from scratch again it would be incredibly hard.”

As it was, they faced a Herculean task. With 40 years of costumes cordoned off inside the Arts Centre (including an astonishing $10,000 worth of buttons), replacements had to be begged and borrowed. To fund the project, $4.6 million had to be raised. The first show – Roger Hall’s A Shortcut to Happiness – had to be rehearsed. In the middle of it all, Gumbley’s wife, Georgia, gave birth to their first child six weeks before opening night.

Although he is filled with relief to have the theatre open again, and grateful for the support it has received, Gumbley says the December 23 aftershocks have forced him to confront a difficult truth: “There’s a feeling that ‘there’s no doubt about this, we’re in a sequence, and how is that going to play out?’ It’s the first time really that I’ve asked myself, ‘Is this really where I want to be bringing up a young family?’ I haven’t answered that question yet. I feel safe where we are living, and I don’t think there is any immediate danger to my new family.

“And I feel a commitment to this ­theatre. The re-establishment of the Court has been really important. It shows organisations can get back up and running, not just at a make-do level but at a meaningful level. It gives us a little bit of our lives back. And it’s so important for people to be able to come together as a community, and that’s what this theatre can offer.”

He remains an optimist, but sees about him a city in “stasis”, where everyone is waiting for everyone else to go first, and where optimism is being drained away by insurance hassles. “Where is the optimism going to come from in the future? How do we get out of this trough of inertia?”

HERITAGE OWNER AND ENTREPRENEUR ALAN SLADE




After four near misses, energetic, driven entrepreneur Alan Slade has been forced to re-evaluate what he calls his “amazing optimism”. Slade, wife Lorraine and their jazz-singer daughter Natalie own the former Trinity Congregational Church on the corner of Worcester and Manchester streets. Built between 1873 and 1875, it was Canterbury’s first Benjamin Mountfort-designed stone church.

The Slades bought it in 1993. At the time they had a thriving Australian-based Japanese weddings business, and the magnificent Gothic Revival church was their most prized venue. In 2004 they moved to Christchurch and turned it into Octagon Live, a successful cabaret and restaurant. The building took a hammering in the first earthquake on September 4, 2010, but was considered repairable. Luckily, the quake occurred at 4.35am and no one was inside. Octagon Live was open for business within a few weeks.

When the 2010 Boxing Day aftershock hit the city centre, the building got smacked around again. By sheer luck, the business was closed that day. The Slades managed to get it open again by New Year. On February 22, six people were in the building, including three chefs who were in the kitchen under the tower preparing for a cocktail party. The tower collapsed, but everyone walked out uninjured. Again, sheer luck.

Slade’s commitment to rescue the building didn’t flag. With the city centre sealed off by the red-zone barricades, his efforts to stabilise the structure and work on a repair plan earned the support of Cera and the Christchurch City Council heritage team. He accepted that the failed tower could never be rebuilt, but was determined to restore the glorious timber interior and the bulk of the stone exterior. In a city that has suffered comprehensive destruction of its heritage, it was to be a rare and precious link with the past.

On December 23 it was walloped again. Slade’s workers had knocked off for the Christmas break the day before. The wall they had been working on collapsed in the magnitude 5.8 and 6 aftershocks. “I’m starting to run out of sheer luck,” says Slade. “How far do you push this thing? This is an angry Mother Earth.” Will they go on with the rescue mission? Natalie – who has written and recorded a breezy, uplifting song called Build It for the Children – has helped sustain her parents’ motivation for the project.

But aside from the thrashing earth, there are other obstacles: insurance is scarce and expensive, and they face a punishing excess of 20% of the building’s value; the consenting process as “onerous and long and costly”; and Slade thinks the well-intentioned green requirements in the CBD rebuild plan will only impose cost and do nothing substantive to push the city towards a sustainable future. “It’s regulation after regulation that reduces our freehold rights.”

When we talk in late January, Slade says he feels there’s a 50-50 chance the project will go ahead. He has removed equipment and tools from the site while he and his family think things over. “We’re the guardians of that wonderful building, and we’ve felt we must do something about it. But if we’re going to risk people’s lives, then the sacrificing of our retirement income isn’t worthwhile.”

KIOSK OWNER IAN CARTER




Healing and renewal, we are learning, begin with small acts of inspiration and generosity. On Colombo St, Sydenham, Ian Carter's bright relocatable Coffee Zone kiosk is the focal point for a cluster of nimble, creative enterprises that are bringing energy and life back to an area levelled by the quakes.

After the February quake, Carter felt he had to do something, so he set about building a cafe entirely from recycled materials. The walls are made from the panels of a chiller that was headed for the dump, and clad with timber planks recovered from demolition sites. He brightened the exterior with a hoard of second-hand Lego, built planter boxes from demolition timber and grew a crop of strawberries (customers can help themselves). Music is piped through speakers he picked up for free at a charity store. And when the landowner of the site on which his cafe sits decides to rebuild, he can pick up his building and open up on another vacant site.

Coffee Zone is a joint venture with Greening the Rubble (GTR), a volunteer group that, like its sister organisation Gap Filler, is dedicated to filling raw, empty sites with beauty. GTR installed gabion boxes and topped them with brightly painted recycled timber to serve as seating for coffee drinkers. They brought in a cascade of yellow planters, furnished the back wall with donated timber, and planted natives down the south boundary. Out the back, they're creating an outdoor music room, complete with piano.

Next door to Coffee Zone, Hitesh Ravji has been running his dairy from a leased container since soon after the February earthquake destroyed his building. Out the front, GTR has created a temporary raised garden and made seats out of old -pallets. On the north side of Coffee Zone, a group of Gap Filler volunteers spent a week in January building a 10sq m head office for the group.

The day we stop for a coffee and a chat, Carter, wife Sandra and their barista, Bex, are doing a steady trade. He says it's a subsistence business, but building it has sustained his spirits. "I was heartbroken by the devastation in the city. This has helped me. It has given me a bit of healing."
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