The truth about earthquake repairs

21:33, Sep 03 2014

And so another anniversary rolls around. Another year removed from the point at which Christchurch (and Canterbury) started to become a byword for "busted".

On a personal note, today also marks the beginning of what became our family. Four years on from our first date the Silver Fox and I are older, more tired, and the proud guardians of a three bedroom home in an affordable suburb, not to mention a nine month-old human (also to be found in the same suburb).

A lot has happened, and some of it's been great. Other than reproducing, the other important thing that happened to us in the last year was the earthquake repairs on our house.

We bought our house with earthquake repairs still pending. While it might seem odd to people living outside of Canterbury to buy a damaged home this is quite common in Christchurch as the housing stock continues to be limited (but it's officially not a crisis, m'kay?). It's also appealing to buy a house knowing that even if the colour scheme doesn't tickle your fancy, at some point down the line EQC will be replastering and repainting in colours of your choosing. Boy did we have fun (and by "fun" I mean "arguments") whilst poring over colour charts.

Our house had mainly cosmetic damage with cracks in walls and ceilings in most of the rooms but nothing that rendered it unliveable, just not of a NZ House & Garden standard.

Our former landlord, who had been (and still is) in a protracted battle over his Red Zoned home in Heathcote recommended that we keep a record of every communication we had with EQC, EQR or CERA. At the time this seemed sensible if a little pessimistic. Our repairs were straightforward. How bad could it be?


What follows is a cut down version of that record. For many Christchurch people it may fall into the territory of "triggering" but I've always tried to get across, using examples from my own life, what it's like to live here now and this is what it's like. At least it's how it was for us.

There are many earthquake repair stories in the flat city. This is just one of them...

Mid-April 2013 - An EQR (Earthquake Recovery) rep, George* and our assigned builder, Sean, meet us at the house to revise the "Scope of Works" which is basically a room by room list of things to be repaired. We have only just found out that I am pregnant so we let them know that we'll need the work to be completed before December. Complete strangers know about our baby before my mum does.

We're assured that work will be done over the winter, will take four to six weeks and should be completed by Spring (Aug/Sept). Asbestos tests will be needed for two of the bedrooms.

The following week - Someone comes to take samples for asbestos testing.

A week after that - Someone from EQC rings to say that there would be a hold put on our claim until someone had been around to inspect the property. When told we'd already had a builder round doing a scope of works recently caller responded with "Oh, nevermind then". Weird.

No more communications from either EQC or EQR until...

Second week in July - Form letter from EQR letting us know repairs will be completed or started by the end of the year. Unfortunately our baby will also be completed by the end of the year. There's an email address and phone number to call for further information.

16 July - SF calls EQR for further information. Person on phone unable to answer questions, "someone else is responsible for your file". Is told appropriate person will ring him back. Nobody calls.

17 July - SF called EQR office for Peggy who is in charge of our file but who was "in another call". Left name and number to be called back. Again, call wasn't returned.

18 July - SF called EQR office for Peggy. Talked to her and established that the house tested positive for asbestos and is possibly waiting for more tests. She said she needed to talk to George and possibly the contractor about what the next steps are. Would call back with more information as soon as possible. They are now aware of how far along the pregnancy is and that time is now critical for getting the repairs done.

26 July - SF called EQR office for Peggy - having given her eight days to call back. She was "in a call" and unable to talk. Person on phone was able to look at our file (cf call on 16th July) and informed us that apparently nothing has changed. Complained about the consistent non-return of calls.

30 July - SF, fed up with not speaking to anyone at EQR rings the builder, Sean, for an update. Leaves voicemail message.

30 July - Sean returns call. Says waiting on further asbestos testing as it was insufficient for safety of his workers. Confirms asbestos present in 2 of the 3 rooms tested. No progress. George has stepped down and has been replaced by Jeremy. Sean will call Peggy to chase up these tests.

30 July - Builder left voicemail: spoke to Peggy. She is arranging the second lot of asbestos testing "as we speak" but we don't hear anything more.

7 August - SF rang for Peggy. Got put through but went straight to voicemail. Left a message for her to call back. Nobody calls.

12 August - The SF, having become almost apoplectic with rage at the thought of trying to speak to Peggy again so lets me try. I get put through to Peggy straight away and speak to her (she actually exists!) about asbestos tests. She says Jeremy (the new supervisor taking over from George) has put through the paperwork for the follow-up asbestos tests and that it is now up to the testing company to contact us to arrange to collect samples. This should happen within the next week or two. If we haven't heard from them by the middle of next week then we should ring back so that she can follow up with them. Results of any asbestos tests done should be available roughly a week later.

Middle of the following week, 21 August - SF speaks to Amy at EQR. There are conflicting accounts about who wants asbestos tests. Despite what we've been told previously no tests have been organised at all. She says the builder didn't require the asbestos tests and that he has no say in the matter. This conflicts with what Sean told us. Apparently Jeremy put a note against our case yesterday and should be ringing us in the next day or so.

22 August - Call from EQR to request a time for working out what asbestos tests are required. We're now dealing with someone called Nigel. Wait, what happened to Jeremy? Or George for that matter? Could Peggy be responsible? She seems very evasive.

26 August - Harry came to complete asbestos testing. We pay for our own asbestos test for the hallway ceiling. It's not going to be repaired but we'd like to know if it has any in it. 

29 August - Email notification of results for asbestos test we paid for (hall ceiling). No asbestos found. Phew. So it's only the butt-ugly stippling to hold against it. Assume results for EQR asbestos tests would have come back at the same time but we don't hear anything about the results of those.

11 September - Rang EQR. Put through to voicemail. Left message to call back with name, address and phone number...

11 September - The baby is due in just over 3 months so we are now calling back on the same day. Rang back requesting to speak to Nigel's Customer Service Officer (Donna) as Nigel had mentioned we might be transferred to her. Was told that wasn't allowed. A message is left for Peggy to call back on mobile. Left number, name, address again...

12 September - Call from Jeremy after he was told by Peggy to call us. Upon realising who was calling, was told that he's no longer looking after us. We already knew this! The SF sends an email to Nigel outlining the multiple phone calls and lack of return calls. How come Peggy hates us so much when she's almost never spoken to us?

17 September - SF calls EQR and speaks to Liz (our new contact person?) who leaves a message with Nigel (a post-it at this desk) to call us, which we are told should be that afternoon. Nigel does not call that afternoon.

18 September - No call from Nigel. Asbestos tests were about 3 weeks ago and we still don't have a start date for our repairs.

19 September - I call EQR to see if I could get hold of Nigel who was unfortunately out. Spoke to Liz who was surprised to hear he hadn't called back yet and said she would have to "physically force him to call you" when he gets in, presumably later today. No call from Nigel.

20 September - I ring and ask to speak to Nigel (not in) so am put through to Liz's voicemail and leave a message with her giving mobile number and asking her to ring back. Expressed frustration that we had still not heard from Nigel. This is the 4th straight day of trying to speak to him. No call back from Liz or Nigel.

27 September - Call from Sean the builder to confirm the start date of repairs is 14 October. Pardon? That's 17 days from now. 17 days to find somewhere to live in the white hot Christchurch rental market. Geez, it's a bloody good thing there isn't actually a housing crisis.

2 October - SF speaks to Nigel. A miracle! Organises a meeting for the following day.

3 October - SF signs document outlining the approach to repairs with regards to asbestos. Are not left a copy of this document. Immediately forget what was in it. D'oh.

9 October - Meeting at the house with Nigel, our EQR person and Sean, our builder to discuss repairs starting the following week. End of repair scheduled for 29 November. Three weeks before baby's due date.

30 October - Call from Sean advising that asbestos crew had stripped and disposed of all electrical fittings in three rooms without labelling which were plugs and which were switches. SF goes to the house to meet the builder so he can tell him where all the power outlets are supposed to go.

2 November - Visited property. Noted front door snibbed preventing key access, and back door secured by key and warning tape tying doors together. Did not enter house. Sean calls and says that "suspicious plaster" (which would make a great name for a band) in the kitchen may have asbestos. Site shut down for a week while a third lot of asbestos tests are organised.

4 November - Asbestos testing company calls to arrange to collect samples at the house. 

8 November - SF rings Sean to get house update. Kitchen ceiling asbestos tests negative. Repairs unlikely to be done by November 29th. Now ETA of December 6th.

30 November - Baby arrives ahead of schedule.

7 December - Move back into house.

If this seems horribly drawn out and mind-numbingly repetitive (call, leave message, wait, repeat) then that's because it was. And ours was a fairly straightforward case. There was no disagreement between the insurance company and EQC. No structural damage meaning a long time out of the house. Because we hadn't owned the house for that long the whole process, for us, took only 8 months.

Now, consider that there are people in Christchurch that have been doing this for FOUR YEARS. I was at "tearing my hair out" stage after only three months. I know people who can barely utter the letters "EQR" without rolling their eyes and crossing themselves.

So I get that people in other parts of the country are probably sick of hearing about our problems but the the awful truth of it is that this stuff is all still happening for thousands of people.

Am I grateful to have a repaired house? Absolutely. But did the process have to be so awful that even now thinking about it makes my blood boil? I should hope not.

And this is why John Key gets booed during the leaders debate in Christchurch.

*All names have been changed to protect the incompetent.