New Zealand: Christchurch Earthquakes and Rebuild

I begin this article on the Christchurch earthquakes and the rebuild by discussing a very different disaster that took place five years earlier in New Orleans. In 2005 New Orleans was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and an official count of over 1,800 people (1,500 of them in New Orleans) died primarily as the result of the failure of the levees that were supposed to protect the city from severe flooding. Many more died in the aftermath of the disaster because of appalling  neglect on part of the authorities and lack of health care and assistance.

The collapse of the levee system was due, in large part, to budget cuts over the decades which saw the maintenance budgets for the levees cut back to a level that much of the levee system was in a poor state of repair. They could not withstand the flooding they were designed to prevent, let alone the sea surges that Hurricane Katrina threw up.

After the hurricane many of the suburban areas around the levees were abandoned because the insurance companies refused to pay out money to rebuild the areas and both state and federal government refused to step in. The population of New Orleans declined by over a third as thousands of people relocated to other parts of the United States as virtual refugees.

Much of New Orleans became a ghost town as schools were merged or closed down, essential services withdrawn and homes abandoned.

Cue forward to Christchurch five years later

It is well known that New Zealand is prone to earthquakes but Christchurch, unlike Wellington, had not experienced earthquakes in its own right and no known earthquake fault lines ran through the city. Thus the attitude of the local council for many decades was to take a rather blasé attitude towards building codes that had largely been shaped by the lessons learned from the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake.

Deregulation in the building industry from the 1980s had resulted in cowboys who opposed any form of regulations as “bureaucracy gone mad” moving in to design and build buildings that, in many cases, didn’t even meet basic building codes of the time but the “old boys’ network” that operated within the building industry and the council’s building inspectors allowed many substandard buildings to be constructed, including the CTV (Canterbury Television) building.

There was also another problem where the consequences would not become obvious immediately. From the 1980s onwards local councils were merged to form bigger councils and many of the experts who were employed by councils were laid off. At the same time government departments were either being merged, abolished or turned into State Owned Enterprises where the primary objective appeared to be saving money and cutting staff down to levels where they could barely provide core services, let alone any other type of service. Geologists were among those people deemed to be surplus to requirements.

We mostly know about the impact of deregulation in the building industry through the virtual destruction of the apprenticeship system and the leaking homes scandal – revealing that many thousands of newly built houses and apartment buildings built from 1994 to 2005 in New Zealand suffer from severe weather-tightness problems with total repairs and replacement cost estimated to be more than $11 billion – but there were fears about the deregulation of the building industry having deadly consequences. Warnings were issued periodically but they were largely ignored as alarmist – until September 2010 – when many of those fears were realised with the first of the Christchurch earthquakes. However it wasn’t until February 2011 when a powerful aftershock caused the collapse of many buildings in the CBD (Central Business District), causing the death of 185 people, that many problems that had always been present were brought out into the open. (The February 2011 earthquake was, geologically, an aftershock but for insurance purposes all earthquakes over mag. 5 are treated as a separate earthquake in its own right.)

Major funding cuts in the sciences meant little research had been done into exploring and mapping out fault lines for many decades with the result that geologists didn’t know a major fault line ran through Christchurch. Because no one knew about the earthquake fault line many of the building codes that related to earthquake proofing were often ignored with the result that many of the buildings in Christchurch didn’t meet up to earthquake building standards. However, because most of the buildings withstood the earthquake of September 2010, the belief that Christchurch’s buildings were mostly safe because of our superior building standards resulted in a rather blasé attitude at all levels of government.

In fact, a lot of the buildings that were passed as safe were only subjected to a cursory inspection by building inspectors who were being pressured by building owners, the council, the government, the public and the media to inspect as many buildings as possible within a short period of time. This, combined with the simple lack of building inspectors with the necessary knowledge of structural engineering (many of them were from the insurance industry), meant they missed many signs that some buildings weren’t as structurally sound as initially believed.

The inquiry into the collapse of the CTV building revealed that cracks and other signs of structural weakness had begun to appear in the building almost immediately but the building owners and managers paid no attention to the concerns raised by many of the building’s workers and tenants. Thus, by February 2011, the question was no longer if but when the building would collapse.

However, it wasn’t just in the CBD where decades of building industry de-regulation exacted a terrible price. From the 1950s onwards Christchurch, like many other cities, expanded rapidly. The need to house an expanding population resulted in many sub-divisions being built on land that often needed to be drained and which was often unstable. Reclaimed land, whether from harbours, lakes, marshes or wetlands, can be built on but in the event of a major earthquake such land is prone to a process called liquefaction. In a nutshell, liquefaction is when the water table in the soil upon which a structure is built becomes so high the soil cannot support the weight of what is built on top of it with the result that anything built on top sinks into the soil.

With so much of Christchurch being built on reclaimed land a lot of houses suffered serious structural damage as the result of liquefaction. This has led to a problem that has been one of the key reasons why Christchurch has taken so long to rebuild: is it appropriate to rebuild homes in areas prone to liquefaction? Some insurance companies believe it is irresponsible to allow rebuilding in areas prone to liquefaction so they are unwilling to pay out to householders to rebuild their homes. At the same time the government is determined to reduce government spending at any cost so if they can reduce EQC (Earthquake Commission) payouts to a minimum they will do so. One of the ways to do this is to downplay exactly how much it would cost to repair a home.

The result is that home owners are caught in a vicious trap between insurance companies and the EQC who are providing wildly differing assessments that are based more on reducing the costs to their respective organisations than on actually getting anything done. The result is that house owners, the government and the insurance companies are in court fight over who covers what and over the accuracy of these assessments that have been done. While they argue in court only cosmetic repairs are being done and many neighbourhoods are still without many functioning utilities two years after the February 2011 earthquake. Many households are still waiting for something to be done on their September 2010 claims.

In the CBD the problems are somewhat different. The EQC doesn’t cover commercial buildings but the problem is less to do with insurance companies and more to do with arguments with what should be done with the inner city.

There are also many other issues that have arisen as the result of the earthquakes that neither the council nor the government have shown any willingness to take decisive action on or to listen to any group other than to powerful business interests, especially within the building industry. Matters have not been helped by appointing perhaps one of the worst performing and most prone to stunts and manoeuvres MPs – Gerry Brownlee (National Party) – as the lord and master of Christchurch who still welds a lot of power within the city.

With the Household Labour Force Survey stating that the number of unemployed people is around 7% of the work force many of them are heading down to Christchurch in search of work, attracted by the reconstruction industry, only to find that most of them are being overlooked for work on construction sites in favour of skilled migrants from overseas, particularly Ireland. To make matters worse, the many other jobs in supporting industries and the service sector are offering lots of minimum wage jobs which don’t even meet the costs of accommodation.

Considering the government is capitalist it appears to have forgotten the basic law of supply and demand: the shortage of housing where all the utilities are still working have resulted in accommodation costs rising to such a point that many people now have jobs but nowhere to live.

Decades of cutting back on apprenticeship schemes, especially in the trades, has come back to haunt the government because there aren’t enough people with the suitable training and experience needed to work in the building industry in Christchurch. My neighbour, who is an experienced painter, explained the situation very well to me a few months ago when he said, “It takes about two years before a painter is good enough that they actually start making money for an employer. Although many of the people heading down to Christchurch are keen they simply don’t have the experience needed so the others are effectively carrying them. They’re not only doing their own job but also having to fix up the work of others.”

There is also widespread discrimination in the building industry against the unemployed so even when they do have the necessary skills and experience they’re usually overlooked, which has created a lot of resentment amongst the unemployed who are furious because they can do the work but are being sidelined at the same time as the government is cracking down on the unemployed to get work.

Without putting too fine a point on it the Christchurch rebuild is in a mess. In the suburbs nothing is getting done because no one can agree on what needs to be done, there isn’t enough accommodation to house all the people that the government wants to send down to Christchurch so they can claim they’ve reduced unemployment and local employers would prefer to bring in workers from the other side of the world than hire local workers.

The government is treating the Christchurch rebuild as a gigantic job creation scheme. Whenever the unemployed complain about the lack of job opportunities the usual response from radio talkback, the government and even the general public is that if they really wanted to work they’d be willing to relocate to Christchurch. As I was writing the final version of this article the Minister of Education announced that several schools were to be merged and others were being closed down altogether because of “falling school rolls”. So much for encouraging people to relocate to Christchurch!

When I began this article I referred to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. One of the longer term consequences of the hurricane has been the depopulation of New Orleans and the gutting of local services as a result. Between 2005 and the 2010 Census the population fell by a third. There is no doubt that the upcoming population census in New Zealand will reveal a major decline in Christchurch’s population as people have simply abandoned their damaged homes or simply don’t have enough money to live in Christchurch because they’ve seen their jobs disappear and the ones that are being created are not only not enough to replace the jobs that have been lost but they have mostly gone to people from outside the area. With these people having relocated elsewhere and re-established their lives elsewhere they are unlikely to return.

As long as people stay away from Christchurch the government will use this as an excuse to justify shutting down schools and cutting back on services provided by both the local council and the government which will lead to more people leaving the area – a situation that people living in small towns throughout the country are all too familiar with already. This is also what has happened in New Orleans.

It’s a paradox that the government is trying to use the Christchurch rebuild as a means of boosting the economy but when the factors that I’ve outlined are taken into account the Christchurch rebuild isn’t doing anything to address the economic problems facing New Zealand. Like the Hawke’s Bay earthquake in February 1931, which occurred at the height of the Great Depression, the Christchurch rebuild is not going to provide long term job creation or economic stability.

There is a tired old cliché that states “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. This is as true in economics as anything else. The government is putting all its eggs into the Christchurch rebuild while ignoring the greater picture that the New Zealand economy has been badly hit by overseas economic austerity measures which means people are less willing to travel long distances or spend a lot of money, which has impacted on our tourism industry. Our farming industry has been hammered by the high rate of the New Zealand dollar and, now, the worldwide fallout from the scandal involving the substitution of beef with horse meat in ready-to-eat meals undermining confidence in the food industry as a whole. And it’s now becoming impossible to keep track of the numbers of established New Zealand businesses that have laid off staff or gone bust because workers are now so poorly paid it’s cheaper to order items on the Internet from overseas than to buy something from down the road.

Ultimately the only way the New Zealand economy can be saved is with a socialist economy where saving money and hiking up profit margins is not the be all and end all of human existence.

Socialist Appeal demands:

  • Introduction of rent controls based on the ability to pay;
  • Nationalisation of all land suitable for house building. Compensation based on need. Stop the speculators;
  • Workers control and management of Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA).  Development of democratic committees comprising of representatives from effected householders / communities, workers in the rebuild, CTU members to represent the wider working class.  A city for its people not for big business!
  • Nationalise the insurance industry and full state compensation to all affected householders;
  • For a rebuild plan that is democratically controlled by the Christchurch communities;
  • Rebuild workers to be guaranteed trade union rights, representation and a minimum living wage of $18.40 hour or $736 per week. No exceptions!
  • A crash programme of meaningful training/ apprenticeships  to enable  the unemployed and youth to gain real work;
  • The findings of the Royal Commission to be fully implemented;
  • All buildings to be brought up to latest earthquake standards and building regulations.

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