8 years since first Canterbury quake; Insurance still fiddling and farting


530,000 Cantabrians went to sleep on the night of 03-04 September 2010 thinking tomorrow would be just another day. Probably not a single person thought about the fault lines lurking underneath the alluvial gravel plains that Canterbury and Christchurch sit on. But many, many people will remember that freight train like rumble coming through the night, the frantic staggering to the doorway as the house began to shake.

When the shaking stopped about a minute later, it was immediately obvious a major earthquake had hit. The power was out, as was water and sewerage. A steady stream of aftershocks continued bolting through in the remaining hours of darkness and into the day, the days, the weeks and months.

Within days aftershocks of a human kind had started. Completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen them, E.Q.C. had the rabbit in a headlight look – frozen, not knowing what to do and completely unable to assist customers. With every big aftershock a new claim would have to be lodged. With each one, new reports and inspections would be needed. New case managers would need to be assigned or reassigned.

Whilst there were initially 240,539 claims needing to be solved, of which 240,021 have been, 8 years of putting ones life on hold whilst waiting for a Government agency to get its act together is quite shocking. But that was the case of one lady in Christchurch on the consumer affairs programme Fair Go last night.

8 years, many more earthquakes later and it is now obvious that E.Q.C. actually DOES know what they are supposed to be doing. They just do not want to. For reasons only understood by their bureaucracy it is somehow not in their interests to wrap up the remaining several thousand Christchurch earthquake claims that should have been wrapped up by my guess not later than the start of 2015.

Imagine that.

Let us be honest. Earthquake Commission, and the major insurance companies have no intention whatsoever of finalizing the remaining claims and New Zealanders should stop deluding themselves into thinking otherwise.

90 days or see you in court, is what I say the Government should tell them. During that time they should prepare the necessary legal documents for the court, and on the 91st, these should be served.

There is no excuse for any of the on going delays. There is only so many times a report can be written without covering material covered in previous reports. There is only so many times an inspection can be done before the inspectors see that they are looking at things they have already sighted. There is only so many times anyone trying to get to the bottom of this should ever have to put up with bureaucracy before they have a case to make against the officials in question.

That time has long since come for E.Q.C. and the insurance companies.

E.Q.C. report nothing new


Another E.Q.C. report – the same old story: disgruntled claimants, botched repairs and no one being made to take responsibility.

After 7 years of dealing with the consequences of the 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes the latest E.Q.C. report was not surprising in the least, except perhaps with regards to how scathing it was.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Megan Woods has been in the job for 8 months now. Annette King who was appointed Chairwoman of E.Q.C.’s Board has been instructed by Ms Woods to accept the findings and begin implementing the recommendations immediately.

All well and good so far. But having spent most of a decade waiting for satisfactory resolution to their claims and fair, full and final payouts to match, many will be short on patience. Some of the claimants are in their 80’s and should not need to be still dealing with problems that might have started when they were still in their 70’s. These are the people who should be happily living out their final days enjoying their time with their relatives and friends, doing things they like and not having to worry about what the Earthquake Commission is or is not doing about their property.

The Earthquake Commission for its part needs to play along with Mrs King’s implementation of the findings. No time to delay, no games to play – anyone who begs to differ should be shown the door forthwith..

The report, whilst welcome has some serious issues to overcome, namely:

  • What will be the period in which claims can be settled – open ended settling periods are not acceptable and have been the cause of considerable and well documented angst among claimants
  • Will Cabinet approve the reimbursing of insurance companies if they agree to immediately settle on all over-the-cap claims? Ms Woods says that she will, but given the financial pressure it is likely to add, it remains to be seen if Cabinet will come on board
  • The standard of repairs needs addressing – the repairs should not have been signed off in the manner that they were until someone with neutral oversight could check the standard
  • Hire the necessary staff to do the job and stop pretending everything is under control when it is clearly obvious that it is not
  • Tell E.Q.C. that non-compliance is not an option

It is with guarded optimism that I wait to see what will happen. Having been in Christchurch for all of the magnitude 6.0+ events – 04 September 2011 (7.1); 22 February 2011 (6.3); 13 June 2011 (6.4) and 23 December 2011 (6.0) – as well as nearly all of the aftershocks between magnitude 5.0-5.9 and felt the stress, I can totally understand the frustration and anger. It is long since time to get this mess fixed.

No charges for C.T.V. building engineers


CTV building before 22 February 2011 and after (PHOTO: 3 NEWS)

At 1251 hours 22 February 2011 in an earthquake that could be technically classified as an aftershock of the 04 September 2010 magnitude 7.1 Canterbury earthquake, the Canterbury Television building on Madras Street, Christchurch collapsed. 115 people lost their lives. Investigations into who knew what about the status of the building found three people potentially culpable for its failure.

The C.T.V. building right from its design and construction was a fundamentally flawed building. On 26 December 2010, a violent magnitude 5.0 aftershock struck right under central Christchurch. Afterwards the C.T.V. building was given a second green sticker, siginalling it had been inspected and no damage likely to threaten the integrity of the building or peoples safety had been detected. This was a fatal mistake.

Today however, the New Zealand Police announced that they were not going to charge anyone over the C.T.V. building failure. The reasons given were:

  1. The threshhold of culpability with the probable charge of manslaughter was too high – the Crown had to prove that the conduct of any defendant charged was so bad as to warrant the distinction of being considered a serious crime
  2. The length of time that had passed between building and the deaths occurring

I accept that the threshhold required to prosecute in negligent manslaughter is very high. To do so one must be able to prove that the building would have failed if it were not for the design flaws.

However there are people who should have been looked at more closely than they were:

  1. Gerald Shirtcliffe (William Fisher), who faked a whole degree based another William Fisher in England who had finished a degree in civil engineering – completely unqualified to be working in the building industry at all and known to have made serious errors in his supervision of the C.T.V. building’s construction
  2. Alan Reay, who designed the building was working out of his depth and knew it
  3. David Harding, the engineer who was employed by Alan Reay Consultants failed to disclose at an Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand disciplinary hearing his involvement in the C.T.V. building design

I further think that the building code in 1986 was probably strict enough that if followed, the building might have still had deaths in it, but not a catastrophic collapse killing 115 people. Then the specifications set down in the then building code would have designed with the understanding that Christchurch is not immune to earthquakes, that seismic waves can be amplified passing through certain strata and that the seismic waves also induce vertical movement as well as side to side shaking.

A case does exist, nonetheless for amending the law to enable such suggested prosecutions to happen. The investigation should be conducted with the support of a technical expert – qualified I.P.E.N.Z. registered engineer, or other suitable person – who shall have access to whatever files are relevant.

It will not bring back the dead. It will not change the fact that on the day of the quake there was also uncertainty about who should be leading the rescue effort. But it will hopefully ensure that the C.T.V. failure on 22 February 2011 is the last of its kind in New Zealand and that New Zealanders pay due regard to such matters in the future.

Time for E.Q.C. inquiry


During the campaign, Prime Minister-designate Jacinda Ardern and Labour made a slew of promises regarding the Christchurch earthquake recovery and the role of the lead agencies involved. Whilst the Canterbury Earthquake Authority has since been dismantled, the Earthquake Commission, the other major Government agency involved – overwhelmed and somewhat leaderless since 2010 – has fought a losing battle coping with the complexity of the civilian rebuild.

The incoming Minister for Christchurch Earthquake Recovery, Megan Woods, has stated her desire to hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the failure of the Earthquake Commission. The Commission which has oversight for the repairs to properties damaged in the 2010-11 earthquake sequence told media that she “absolutely wants one to be held.

This is long overdue. It should not have taken a change of Government in Wellington to bring about something that many have been demanding for several years. Despite having largely finished the settling of civilian claims, the Earthquake Commission has since been found significantly wanting in signing off on repair work done. Many of the claimants have come back to their properties after work was supposed to have been completed to find defective repairs or in some cases work that was meant to be done, not being done at all.

When former Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee was appointed to the role in September 2010, following the initial magnitude 7.1 earthquake, the Earthquake Commission was swamped by claims from the quake which totalled N.Z.$4 billion. Only a fraction of those had been processed when the 22 February 2011 earthquake hit. The claims blew out to over 200,000 and totalled N.Z.$35 billion, rising to N.Z.$40 billion with the damaging 13 June 2011 aftershocks.

Although Mr Brownlee made significant effort to get the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and E.Q.C. working together, there were common problems – a lack of communication, unwanted Ministerial intervention, a lack of transparency in the organizations and accusations of nepotism. Unfortunately a degree of truth existed to all of these with the Chief Executives of both E.Q.C. and C.E.R.A. coming in for damning attention. To his credit, the C.E. of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, Roger Sutton fell on his sword after realizing the damage his behaviour had done. Mr Sutton had gained respect in September 2010 for his outstanding leadership of Orion, the lines company responsible for the electricity power line network and distribution in Christchurch.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority wound up on 18 April 2016, five years after forming. It had several successes such as overseeing the Christchurch recovery blueprint, but it also had negative events such as the premature demolition of several buildings with heritage classifications on them undermine the more positive work. Its failure to co-ordinate properly with E.Q.C. served to undermine the effective and efficient early stage recovery.Whether or not any Royal Commission of Inquiry seeks to uncover who did what is another story altogether. Let us hope it does, for the ability to find out how E.Q.C.’s involvement in Christchurch got to where it is, depends on this.

The $1.5 billion loss on Christchurch red zone land


When the earthquakes stopped ravaging eastern Christchurch, thousands of properties lay broken and abandoned. The owners had fled either because the quakes were too much to handle or their properties had suffered such severe damage as to be no longer inhabitable.

The Government came to the rescue, offering to buy them up at their 2007 rating value. Many people accepted and one by one the remaining occupants, upon reaching deals with their insurance companies, packed up and either left town or bought property elsewhere. By the end of 2016, only a few properties were still occupied.

Now, it has come out that since the Government snapped up what was N.Z.$1.5 billion worth of red zone land in eastern Christchurch, the value of that land has plummeted to a mere $21 million. If one works that out, 7,000 properties were worth an average value of $214,285. Now they are worth about $3,000 a piece. In addition to the money sunk into purchasing the red zone properties which take up all of Bexley, parts of Dallington, Avonside, Avondale, Aranui, $130 million was sunk into maintaining them.

To translate, the $3,000 I spent on courses for my Graduate Diploma would have been able to buy one of those properties.

So, what happened?

Effectively much of this is land that is not fit to be built on in terms of residential development. The properties either suffer lateral spreading that means during the shaking different layers of strata moved at different speed, and came to rest in different places from where they started. This has the effect of making the land unstable to build on.

Due to the high intensity of the ground shaking, in some places up to Modified Mercalli X, the dwellings would have also been subject to liquefaction, which would have caused subsidence. This would have damaged both the dwelling and the infrastructure such as the sewerage and water mains, and underground electricity cables.

Political parties as part of their campaign efforts in Christchurch are trying to figure out ways of capitalizing on the empty land and are proposing extra spending to fund projects that might make use of the land. No long term plan has yet been worked out. Locals are divided on what it might be used for. Some support letting it become light farming or horticultural land as this will not involve heavy dwellings such as houses. Others believe that it should become a sports mecca with rowing facilities and so forth.

Being a natural hazards graduate I tend to take a cautionary view of the land. It has suffered damage and there is nothing to suggest further earthquakes in the future will not cause similar problems. Seeing as the land is in what was the so called “Green Belt” around Christchurch, an appropriate use would perhaps be to let it become farmland. Large swathes of it are too low lying and too prone to flooding to be insured by insurance companies, which makes it difficult for anyone wishing to rebuild in the area.