Next February it will be three years since Christchurch in New Zealand was struck by an earthquake of such magnitude that the city was devastated. There have been many natural disasters since and the focus of the world has long since moved on. For the people of Christchurch though, recovery remains slow and painful, and they continue to live among shattered homes and with broken dreams.
Thursday, Thanksgiving, marked a step forward as the tram system came back into operation. Partially. Mayor Lianne Dalziel cut the ribbon at 10am to re-open part of the service that used to carry 280,000 passengers every year. Upgrading work will continue to restore the trams to their original 2.6km loop. It is a small sign of progress.
Poignantly, the symbol of the city’s steps back to solidity has become the Cardboard Cathedral. Formally dedicated this August, the structure of thick cardboard tubes temporarily replaces the iconic 19th century original, which had to be pulled down. Designed by Japanese architect Shigera Ban, the cardboard building can seat 700 people and was built to last for fifty years. Already though, it has shown symptoms of waterlogging.
The central business district, hit hardest by the 6.3 quake, still looks and feels like a ghost town. Bus tours run behind the cordons of chainlink fencing to witness the post-apocalyptic ruins. Downtown, a shopping centre constructed out of brightly colored shipping containers remains another tourist attraction. The unusual mall contains, within its containers, banks, fashion shops and a café. It has an odd permanence amid the roil and rumble of the heavy machinery that continues to demolish buildings all around it.
Why is it taking so long to rebuild? Many, if not most, whose homes were hit are still living in patched-up, sagging and unsafe accommodations. There are several factors to blame. The first is the anomaly that wealthy countries take longer to recover from major disasters. It is often the case that developing countries fare better. After the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia had 100,000 new permanent homes and 700 school rebuilt within two years. In Japan, where the 20122 tsunami caused catastrophic damage, very few new homes have been built.
Peter McCawley, an economist at the Australian National University specialises in disaster relief. He thinks that people in developing countries do no expect to rely on government. They just set about and fix things up, albeit often to low standards. By contrast, First World disaster relief agencies create such complicated rules that any immediate improvements are hampered by miles and miles of red tape.
This is certainly true of Christchurch. There is no shortage of intent, and there is plenty of talk of the boom time that will come when the £29 billion full-scale redevelopment work commences. But there is a major bottleneck with the insurers. The majority of claims are stalled. Aftershocks are a big part of this, as insurers want to be satisfied there is no further danger of earth tremor. Justifying this, Tim Grafton of the New Zealand Insurance Council, said it would be irresponsible to rebuild people’s homes only to see them flattened again in an ensueing quake.
Rezoning has affected the status of many claims. Continual soil testing and analysis by geotechnicians and scientists has shifted the boundaries many times. Red zone is officially off-limits and all buildings in red zone have to be demolished. Land repair in red zone is deemed too costly and uncertain. Green zone is land that can be considered to be built on. There are three sub technical categories to allow for new foundations. Technical category 3 is the most dangerous as future damage from liquefaction is great.
Residents who have been waiting and waiting for the insurers and the land surveyors to reach conclusions so they can know whether they can repair and reconstruct or not, may be forgiven for thinking they’d be better off in a Third World country.
Mark Skidmore, an economist at Michigan State University, would beg to differ with that opinion, and with that earlier stated of Peter McCawley from ANU. He said Indonesia was an exception because of the huge amounts of aid that were attracted to that disaster zone. Haiti, post-earthquake, has seen nothing like the rate of recovery. Skidmore says that better-off countries suffer less deaths, particularly disease-related deaths, and that financial and insurance markets allow money to flow more quickly where it is needed. “Wealthy countries are able to rebound more quickly,” he concludes.
13,500 people have left Christchurch for good and do not plan to return. In many cases, they had nowhere to live and had no choice. Those who are left behind still face years before the city is anywhere close to being back to normal.
In last week’s New Zealand Herald, there were reports of families having to squat in empty red zone houses. The housing situation is nothing short of a crisis. Security firms are finding these homeless people within the restricted areas. They are often forced out by landlords who are making earthquake repairs to rental homes. Around 80,000 homes remain unrepaired.
Cantabrians, as the citizens of Christchurch are called, have taken on a motto “Kia kaha” – stay strong. Sadly for them, they will need to.
By Kate Henderson