Quakes expose fissures in society

Copy of CA_Christchurch quake0 AP Louise Deans walks past her homestead in the rubble near Christchurch after the earthquake on September 4 last year. People who had insured both their property and land against quake damage, paying handsome premiums over years, have found the insurers unwilling to meet the obligations to which policy holders assumed they were entitled.

ALONGSIDE the banks of the Avon in Christchurch, the first spring since the earthquakes has arrived. The pretty cherry blossom is out; daffodils, rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias of vibrant colours are bursting into life.

Nature is trying its best to cheer up Christchurch.

But the reality is different. Christchurch is a dead city, the centre cordoned off and quiet. The only sound is of the mechanical diggers tearing at the wreckage and the dump trucks carting away loads of rubble.

No one knows how long it will take Christchurch to rise from the ashes of the three earthquakes that devastated it, body and soul. At least 15 to 20 years is the best guess. Although there have been bigger quakes on the Richter scale, the second one to hit the Canterbury region in February is considered the most vicious in history.

“You could hear the earth roaring, it was a cascade of noise that seemed to go on forever. You felt the whole ground lift like a wave,” a resident told me.

But perhaps the saddest thing, even allowing for the 181 deaths and the loss of property and ruined lives, is the psychological aftermath. The Canterbury earthquake has forced its people to look inwards at themselves, their lives and their shattered city.

“Christchurch is studying itself and it does not like what it is seeing” said one local.

Bitter in-fighting has replaced the initial shock and grief. Cantabrian has turned on Cantabrian; there has been looting and now burglaries, too. The anger has focused on both the corporate world and local politicians who between them sanctioned ludicrous building projects in areas such as wetlands which scientists had warned for years should never be built upon.

Not for nothing, it seems, did the Maori call Christchurch “the shaky place”. Even now, geologists warn there is still an 80 percent chance of another severe quake.

But the invective has spread among residents, too. “This is now a divided city; there is huge anger coming out,” one told me. “It is east against west. It is people who have lost almost everything against others who are unaffected and just don’t care.”

Years of campaigns to prevent housing on former swamp areas were ignored by the politicians. They succumbed to the developers’ entreaties and sanctioned building.

Thus, as Christchurch struggles to come to terms with the enormity of the task it has been handed by nature, it is estimated a colossal 12 000 houses will have to be demolished. Most of the city centre is being razed.

A tour of the city and its suburbs is a journey into gloom.

On a window ledge inside the Bench Café in Durham Street North, in the heart of the city, lies a copy of The Press, the Christchurch daily. Dated Tuesday, February 22, the front-page headline is: “Teacher quits after affair with student”.

It is a reminder of the day Christchurch was all but destroyed by the third of the quakes that struck the region over nine months.

At nearby Hemingway Fine Wines, incongruously, full bottles of champagne remain undamaged and untouched.

Today, the only activity in the city centre is the business of demolition. Hotels like the Grand Chancellor, Crowne Plaza (where the South African rugby team used to stay) and Copthorne are doomed, the town hall and convention centre likewise. Throughout the city, deserted buildings, commercial and private, await demolition.

In the eastern suburbs you find regions where a death sentence has been passed on the entire community. In some cases, no damage is discernible to the naked eye. But the shifting ground has inflicted widespread devastation.

With great fissures in the ground and destruction everywhere to roads and properties, complete streets are earmarked for demolition.

In the meantime, some residents who have remained in wrecked streets are still without water after seven months, are still using portable toilets in the road.

Yet most areas on the western side of the city are quite unaffected.

Nature’s unexplained division has led to bitter disputes between people.

David Tattle is 67 years old and had created a world to be envied. A successful deep sea diver, Tattle was living the good life: a beautiful home on a quiet lane beside the banks of the Avon, six boats in a huge building at the end of his one-acre plot and a pony in the garden.

But his life was changed forever in just nine months. In the wake of the first quake last September, he sanctioned repair work and improvements on his home worth about NZ$100 000 (R615 143). The builders were barely finished when the next quake struck.

Today, Tattle’s house is condemned. The river close to his front garden is polluted by sewage. His wife has left him and the home he considered worth $1.2 million has been valued at $770 000.

“I have seriously thought of committing suicide because I can’t see how I am going to get out of this,” he tells me.

“No one outside Christchurch can understand how fighting against corporate insurance companies for what should be yours by rights, has just deepened the anguish.

“I lost six friends in the earthquake. There was enough pain and agony. But now we are having to suffer more.”

Tattle’s fears are shared by thousands of other Christchurch residents.

The future? “It’s bloody grim at the moment, I can tell you. Suddenly, from having everything, I have no future.

“I have lost a lot of friends because of the in-fighting. People are turning on each other and it is a sad sight.”

Tattle is correct. As if the plummeting quality of life in Christchurch were not enough – no beaches to visit due to pollution, no libraries, theatres, concerts, plays, rugby matches – copious numbers of letters to The Press have portrayed the protesters as “whingers”.

In the wake of the disaster, ordinary people have discovered the limits of liability demonstrated by the giants of the insurance world.

People who had insured both their property and land against earthquake damage, paying handsome premiums over a number of years, have found the insurers unwilling to meet the obligations to which policy holders assumed they were entitled.

Campaigners for this large group of people allege the New Zealand government buckled, like one of Christchurch’s many buildings, under a fierce collective argument raised by the insurers, many of which are based in Europe.

From initially appearing to assure householders they would be fully recompensed, the government has retreated, say these residents.

Thus, reduced payouts have been proposed that would leave them either forced to take out new mortgages to cover the additional money required to buy in unaffected, more expensive parts of the city, or leave Christchurch for good.

Estate agents in nearby Ashburton and Timaru already report growing business. One man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.

The other equally unpalatable choice is to accept a payment for their ruined properties based on rateable value. Government spin has portrayed the offer – sell the whole property based on its 2007 valuation, or just the land and then argue with insurance companies over the value of the house – as more than generous. But, as with most things that pass through the hands of politicians, the reality is a little different.

The Rev Michael Coleman has been thrust into this increasingly bitter moral argument by the pleas of ordinary Christchurch people to take up their cause. He finds himself trying to juggle people’s emotions and lives.

“I think there is a lot of anger coming out now. Bexley was marshland for decades, it should never have been built upon.

“But in the past 10 to 15 years property developers pushed hard to put housing on that land and the local councillors acquiesced. It has been disastrous. Pretty much every house built out there will have to go and because government values the land so low, people are getting very low offers.”

Coleman says the average value for sections in this area is between $68 000 and $110 000. But as he points out: “For those people to move anywhere else in Christchurch, especially on firm land, each section will cost them on average around $250 000. They just don’t have that money. That is why we have been fighting the government in the past few months.”

New Zealand is believed to have the highest level of insurance business in the world. Yet it has done many of Christchurch’s residents little good.

“It is in our culture to insure yet now the insurance companies are holding us to ransom, they’re backing out all over the place” says Coleman.

“They’re saying that even where homes are repairable, they won’t pay full replacement value, which means people have to accept the government’s offer based on rateable value. But a rateable value is not an exact figure for the value of your home.

“These people seem to have one of three choices: be burned by the insurance companies, burned by the government or burned by the distorted market.”

John Hallinan, a registered valuer in the city for 40 years, has said the difference between rateable value and actual retail value could be as much as 40 percent. For example, resident David Haywood paid $420 000 for his home yet the rateable value has been set at $285 000.

Coleman is a calm, logical man. Yet he concedes: “We are looking at huge amounts of ruined lives. I don’t know what people are going to do. Retired folk can’t get a mortgage to make up the financial shortfall. Most people will need about $150 000 extra to buy anything on better land.

“The government has looked at none of the implications for people. Theirs is a one-dimensional response because they won’t enter the market to make new land available at reasonable prices. And they won’t allow neutral valuations. There is no consideration for the implications on people’s lives and there is no transparency at all.”

The likeliest winners out of all this are the insurance companies, which are increasing premiums for new policies, and the banks, which will finance the unwanted mortgages many people will have to take out with negative equity now a significant factor.

Coleman adds: “Twelve-thousand people is an enormous number to kick off their land and give them no assistance to move somewhere else. There is massive stress within these people. They feel the government has abandoned them.”

Aside from this fight, certain facts are inescapable. Long-time Christchurch resident Barbara O’Brien points to the design of many CBD buildings that folded like a pack of cards in the quake.

“Many were shoddy buildings, the worst of 1960s design where everything was open-plan. All the downstairs was open which meant there was nothing holding it up, so the rest of the building collapsed into that vacuum. Some of the buildings had been modernised and key architectural features removed,” she alleges.

O’Brien says the rest of New Zealand needs to understand the extent of the damage and the impact on the economy for years. “I would really encourage people to come here and look. I don’t think they have any idea what it is really like.

“But they are going to be affected economically by this. As for Christchurch, this is a deeply unhappy society. People are frightened of the future.”

There are a few slivers of light and hope. Philip Aldridge, chief executive of the Court Theatre, is anticipating reopening on December 10 and a special concert by Placido Domingo on October 6 to help raise funds for the city.

Aldridge has just returned from London where he persuaded the legendary Maggie Smith to become the patron of the theatre’s appeal fund.

Had he not returned from Britain with a heavy heart when he saw once more the widespread damage to Christchurch?

“Yes. We were incredibly despondent for a few days after it happened. But then we felt we had to do something, rebuild and inject hope and life. We are going to be the first institution in the city to rebuild so it has become totemic.

“I live in Christchurch and I know what people are suffering. People have lost lives, homes and jobs.

But a cultural infrastructure is imperative to the life of the city. We hope we can, in some small way, help lift spirits by starting again.”

With savage irony, the title of the first play that will be staged in the building is leading New Zealand playwright Roger Hall’s Short Cut to Happiness.

If only the whole city could stumble upon such a path.


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