How Christchurch’s recovery compares with others

At the weekend I was talking to a friend who was describing his battle with the Earthquake Commission over his former red zoned property in the suburb of Avonside. Like so many others in the 2010-11 earthquakes it had suffered battery it could not survive from a combination of shaking, liquefaction and lateral spreading under the house. Four years of procrastination, paper work and misleading conduct on the part of EQC and the insurance companies, he is ready to take them to the cleaners.

And he is not alone. Scores of people live in Christchurch properties that have now waited so long for repairs that other damage caused by being unable to put the house back together or demolish it is starting to creep in. I was told that if a politician from any party had said to the voters in Christchurch “if we are elected, we will take E.Q.C. and the insurance companies to court on your behalf”, they would have taken thousands of votes for uttering the only words many here want to hear from an elected politician.

It got me thinking about how other nations have fared in significant eatrhquake disasters and three in particular stood out. A troika of earthquake disasters in 2009-2011 around the world including Christchurch provide strikingly different impressions of how the recovery in those locations has gone. The other two are the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy and the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake in Japan which caused the tsunami that wrecked the reactor. Notably all three appear to have had reasonably effective disaster responses from the authorities, given the magnitude of the individual events with respect to those countries. The recovery phase however has varied considerably.

On 06 April 2009 an earthquake measuring magnitude 6.3 hit L’Aquila in Italy killing 300+ people and causing about $16 billion in damage. Politicians at a nearby summit came and looked at the damage. Six years later, the centre of the city is still in ruins, though a few businesses have reopened. One of the notable aspects was the setting up of large numbers of fabricated houses to provide temporary shelter for victims. Years later however many are still in them.

On 22 February 2011 a magnitude 6.3 aftershock from the 2010 earthquake struck Christchurch. 185 were killed and around N.Z.$35 billion in damage was caused. Although there has been a major government input into the recovery in terms of money spent, significant concerns have been raised about how democratically led the recovery has been, the reluctance of the insurance companies to pay out to home owners and the cost to the Christchurch City Council.

And then there is Japan, a country with a longer record of being battered by earthquakes than perhaps any other nation except China, with its dreadful earthquake >> tsunami >> nuclear reactor meltdown at Fukushima. The towns have all been cleaned up. Minami-Sanriku, a fishing town about the size of Ashburton (15,000) has all but disappeared from the face of  the map. Because of the reactor meltdown large tracts of land have been left as they were when the tsunami receded due to dangerously high radiation levels. Another concern has been the transparency of Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the Fukushima reactors.

Although Christchurch has definitely made better progress than Italy has with L’Aquila, the lack of progress with civil claims is hindering the recovery because many cannot start their repairs/rebuilds until the insurance companies and E.Q.C. pay out. It is not alone in having issues with transparency about the planning of authorities. Although the city was spared a nuclear meltdown, the infrastructure repairs, the waste material generated and philosophical issues about the form of the new city leave no shortage of problems facing authorities.

Given the lack of progress in L’Aquila and the long term radioactive legacy at Fukushima, for all of its many problems, the Christchurch recovery is probably coming along the best. But the longer it takes to sort out the insurance claims when perhaps the insurance companies should have been dragged into to court, the more the similarity with L’Aquila and eastern Japan grows.

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