Earthquake Commission woes in Christchurch

Nearly five years have passed since the ground shuddered on 22 February 2011, killing 185 people and causing billions of dollars in damage across Christchurch. In that time we have seen the insurance companies struggle under the weight of claims flooding their offices; with the processes established by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and implemented by the insurance companies and E.Q.C. As we approach the anniversary, the senior leadership of E.Q.C. is once again defending its record.

Shortly after the 2014 elections a friend and I were chatting about the problems in Christchurch post earthquake and how to tackle them. One part of the discussion was what the individual political parties when they were on the campaign trail had proposed to do to fix Christchurch. It occurred to both of us that no one had seriously thought about giving the insurance companies and E.Q.C. a deadline to fix individual complaints by or the Government would see them in court. Nearly 18 months later, it seems like not a bad idea. However, it is unlikely to happen under a National-led Government and by the time an alternative Government is elected, for elderly people it might be too late and for others the will to continue fighting might have simply evaporated.

But even if E.Q.C. and the insurance companies were to be taken to court, several questions arise:

  • How long would a likely result take, as many people have had to put their lives on hold whilst they wait for the insurance companies and E.Q.C. to agree on an outcome
  • What would be the general grounds on which the case would be most likely to proceed
  • Does it become some  sort of class action to which anyone with a still outstanding claim is invited to join or a smaller action
  • How would the Government, E.Q.C. and the insurance companies react to such an action

To be honest, although insurance companies have come in for substantial – and most justified – criticism, it is perhaps E.Q.C. that has the most to answer for. The organization that was set up to provide and manage insurance for natural disasters was completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of individual claims and the sheer number that poured in as a result of the earthquakes. Upwards of 400,000 claims were lodged. There was barely a house in Christchurch that did not have damage of some sort. Four separate earthquake events over 15 months meant that E.Q.C. would often still be resolving a previous claim when claims for the next seismic event started to come in.

In some respects the organization is now functioning like a smart phone or android device that has partially frozen: commands are taking forever to transmit into actions, which are often confused and sometimes even cause things to happen for which no command was ever computed. But would a hard reset by dismissing the senior leadership work, or is it just going to cause more random failures? When only a quarter of the staff believe that their employer is doing what people want and that simply ignoring legal and engineering advice in particular cases is some how acceptable to management, perhaps something bit bigger than a hard reset is needed.

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