For the past few weeks I have been struggling to complete my posts on New Zealand Future and the Maori Party so instead I decide to post about something I can summonÂ enthusiasmÂ for.
In the one year since returning to live and work in Christchurch two things have stood about the people in the city.
The first is that almost everybody you speak to has been effected by not only the quakes but the horrendous bureaucratic and legal process that followed in getting their lives back on track.
Almost anyone you talk to can tell you where they were on that day, what they did after, how they got home, who they spoke to and how they spent that first night. The details are vivid and highly personally and it speaks reams that almost all of them have happy endings. Loved ones and pets were safe, families a bit shocked but sound and neighbors rattled but doing well.
Such is the ubiquity of the events that itâ€™s the quintessential conversation starter in Christchurch. Ask anyone where they were and away you go. Instant connection and genuine sympathy abound and people are usually happy to discuss the events.
Where it gets interesting is how people have coped in the five years following and again almost everyone has had to struggle with either insurers, builders, CERA, the council, ECAN, EQC, the government or lawyers to get their lives back on track but the discussion often takes a darker turn.
At first I thought I had wandered into some sort of weird statistical nexus where I was surrounded by people who had these incredible stories of how they had suffered, struggled and usually prevailed over a range of forces, who to many, appeared bent on doing nothing to help (despite that being their stated purpose) and everything to hinder.
As time passed though I came to realize that what I thought was a fluke density of people was in fact the majority of people living in Christchurch. And it was not just homes and families, it was sports clubs, cultural associations, businesses, community groups and a wide range of entities; all of whom had seen their lives, livelihoods and pastimes upended.
No one blames anyone for the quakes (except the odd religious loony claiming that sin city got what was coming to it). Things happen, thatâ€™s life.
On the other hand time and time again I had had to pick my jaw off the floor at stories (both in the press and from people) of what could only be considered corruption, nepotism, criminal practice and all manner dodgy and clearly illegal and immoral behavior by individuals associated with the rebuild, insurance industry, and council and government bodies.
I stopped counting the number of times I heard stories of people having to fight their insurer, builder, CERA or others tooth and nail to get simple things done, have their policies honored, crappy repairs replaced, contracts upheld and getting help with their lives.
And itâ€™s not just individual stories. Not a week goes by that the local media does not have more on to add. I counted in my local weekly paper last week three major articles on issues with the quake and on top of that the daily paper also abounds with many more (stalled convention center, post rebuild job slump and displaced communities just to name a few).
Not all of them are negative but after sifting out the feel good fluff pieces ghost written for Jerry Brownlee or the powers that be most are either critical of the speed of the rebuild process, discussing the various dodgy issues going on, calling for an inquiry into one thing or another (including a royal commission to look at the whole thing) or simply stacking up whatâ€™s been done and finding it wanting.
And to add to the problem is the sheer complexity of them all. If itâ€™s not Â nepotism or corruption in CERA (now renamed in an abortive re-branding exercise); its massive and rampant issues with the rebuild itself; struggles with insurers and pay outs; lives being upturned by homes being downgraded or shoddily repaired; the fact that the side of the city often worst affected by the quakes also happened to have some of the poorest neighborhoods; roads like rural tracks; once familiar and treasured landmarks gone; local businesses and services removed and not allowed back; schools being forced to close despite all clear dangers no longer existing (Redcliffs School); and on and on and on.*
In the first few years this level of concern did not exist; partly because itâ€™s was understood that getting a city back on its feet takes time but also as many of these issues had yet to come to light.
Five years on itâ€™s a differentÂ story and in the 12 months since moving here itâ€™s clear that the coverage in the national media does not do even 1/10th justice to what this city and surrounding regions face. Outside of Christchurch it is becoming a silent tragedy with many people (previously including myself) just not wanting to hear any more about it but also believing that things have been mostly fixed and the city is back on its feet.
Yet whenever I take visitors to Christchurch for a drive through the Redzone (I donâ€™t offer they just ask) itâ€™s a rapid change that takes place as the initial chattiness and excitement of the â€œadventure in quake townâ€ is soon replaced with a silent state of shock as the sheer extent of whatâ€™s happened and whatâ€™s going on is made clear.
Yes there are new buildings and repaved roads but there is also the empty expanse of the Redzone, looking like a slightly greener version of those aftermath photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with empty neighborhoods sprinkled with trees to indicate where property lines once were, the odd house not demolished just to make it clear what this place actually was and roads, that only now after five years, you can drive onÂ without feeling like youâ€™re on an amusement ride of some sorts.
Also the central city, once looking like a kiwi version of a war zone, now has some major new buildings going up but all of the character and heritage of Christchurch is mostly being replaced with dull corporate structures of steel and glass and the central city still has the open wound that is the half destroyed Cathedral right there, at its heart, standing as a grim reminder of what happened.
I lived within the four avenues for most of the 90s and have fond memories of walking or cycling the city streets, learning its secret ways, shortcuts and locations and becoming part of the community of students, artists, bohemians and general folk that make up any central urban area. All of those are gone and with no clear indication that they will ever come back as the only people willing to move back into the central city are the government and banks who are taking a stake on prime ground.
The big new glass buildings might give the impression of life returning but they are hollow reflections of what made up the city center and a forewarning of the sterile corporate soul that will infest the city center at cost to all else.
And thatâ€™s where we get to the second thing that I have noticed about Christchurch which is the palpable sense of fury and anger that exists among the people here. Again I thought it was just one or two people but over time I have come to see that the sheer scale of the negative effects of the rebuild is mirrored in the rage and anger at those who have had to live though all the negatives that followed in the wake of the quakes.
For example, mention Jerry Brownlee and itâ€™s almost impossible to not get a string of expletives from people, and from all parts of the political spectrum, red, blue, green, yellow, whatever. His name will draw down a range of angry criticism which regularly borders on road rage levels of anger.
And I say this with no hyperbole at all that I would not be surprised to hear if someone went into an office of a particular authority and behaved inappropriately. As sad as such an event would be I have heard it described and imagined in detail many times; again from people you would never expect to fantasize about such a thing; setting out in clearly where they would go and whatÂ they would do. Undoubtedly these are all just the verbal venting of individuals who have been through a lot and are justifiably frustrated but who would never actually do the things they are describing (cathartic fantasizing) but such is the anger and upset at what has gone on here that this is the solution that comes to mind.
The fact that CERA and the government has refused requests for an official inquiry, trotted out a tired line of excuses again and again; refused to look intoÂ clear cut cases of corruption and nepotism; ignored issues and buried or twisted stories, surveys or investigations (often with a sprinkling of saccharine PR) where it could and allowed the insurance industry and a range of dodgy building providers (from individual cowboys right up to Fletchers) to game the system to their own immense profit is standard daily fare for people in Christchurch and the anger at such things is now legion.
What will happen I do not know. I have been back 12 months and itâ€™s not like living any other city I have previously lived in (and I have lived in quite a few). The center is gone, itâ€™s referred to as a doughnut city and while life thrives in the various suburbs where the energy and life of the center has now relocated there are others suburbs where communities are still struggling to get back to normal (New Brighton for example).
What I do know is that while most of NZ lives in quiet ignorance of what is happening here itâ€™s a daily fact of life for those in the Garden City. I myself do not live in an effected area, I missed the quakes and have not had to deal with any of the aftereffects but I am a small minority among the upset and often angry many.
As political issues go itâ€™s irrelevant. I doubt Labour or any other government would behave any better such is how our system has become and I wonder how it would be if the Capital was struck as Christchurch was; would the response be the same?
In the end I have an immense respect and sympathy for those that live here and every day I hear stories of them struggling to get their lives back on track and often they do but they mostly did it themselves with little help from government, council or anyone else. If they had not struggled and fought itâ€™s scary to imagine what this city could have become.
This one is for Christchurch!
*- I would add links but there would be pages and pages of them. Just read the Christchurch Press or weekly papers in any day or week for an iota of what is daily here. Just Google it!
In 1931 New Zealanders decided to roll up their sleeves and rebuild Napier after the earthquake.
In 2011 their government decided that Christchurch could be left to the tender mercies of market forces, with some nasty consequences including landlords demanding extortionate rents from those who had lost nearly everything in the earthquake.
New Zealanders bow their heads every Anzac Day in memory of those who sacrificed all for the sake of their country but too many of that solemn crowd, far from making sacrifices of their own for the good of the nation, will ruthlessly exploit their fellow countrymen and women in times of greatest distress.
Yet even in the brave new world of market fundamentalism corruption and nepotism were once considered beyond the pale.
Can you give examples of the kind of thing that has been going on?
Geoff: I agree, leaving the rebuild to a combination of market forces and a government keen on outsourcing may not have been the best choice.
On the flip side, the dictatorial powers given out to Jerry Brownlee and other smacks of big government all the way.
The links below relate to one particular story that was on the boil when I first moved to Christchurch and are chronological so its worth reading them in that order.
Despite that I do encourage you to have a look on your own as these stories are just one case among many.
Thanks for the links. “Market forces” and “dictatorial powers” might seem to be a contradiction, but it is far from being an unusual combination. Democracy in Canterbury received short shrift from central government even before the earthquake – witness Wellington’s putsch against the Canterbury Regional Council.
Funny, I always thought of the two as much of the same thing, but of course I jest.
I agree with everything you say here EA. I am at the periphery of the worst damage in Richmond. The silt damage at home, 35 meters of it, took my back from weak to completely shagged as we say in medical circles. In the first place we helped some people down in Avonside. Then after a while we all knew that were ring fenced inside this thing. From 2011 on I leave Christchurch each year for a considerable period.