Christchurch's earthquake 'refugees'

Laura McConchie in the backyard of her   condemned  Bexley home.
Laura McConchie in the backyard of her condemned Bexley home.

The roses at number eight are dead, the house abandoned. Gardens once perfectly manicured are overgrown with weeds. Port-a-loos sit in driveways.

On windy days, great clouds of silt blow down the street, leaving a layer of grit over everything. The roadway is full of ruts and when it rains, water pools for days. Houses and fences have a peculiar, wobbly look, like they were designed by Dr Seuss.

With every aftershock – and there have been more than 4000 since September 4 – cracks in walls and floors get wider and longer, and people's nerves more frayed. Welcome to Seabreeze Close, a once proud cul-de-sac in the new subdivision of Pacific Park, Bexley.

"I'm 67 this year. Who wants to be stuffing around for the rest of your life waiting to get into your own home?" asks nature photographer Annette Preen.
"I'm 67 this year. Who wants to be stuffing around for the rest of your life waiting to get into your own home?" asks nature photographer Annette Preen.

The street, with its 40 or so homes, provides a snapshot of the daily struggles that residents in suburbs like Dallington, Avonside and Kaiapoi are enduring a full five months after the region was rocked by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake along a previously unknown fault line.

Home in  Seabreeze Close sold for $400,000 just five months ago – owners shudder to think what they are worth now.

Most of the street emptied after the quake, giving it a ghostly feel, but slowly people are moving back. Many have no choice – emergency rental payments provided by their insurance companies are running out or they weren't eligible in the first place. So they live in their wonky homes, putting up with sewerage problems and grit that gets into lungs causing phlegmy coughs.

Deserted street in Bexley, Christchurch.
Deserted street in Bexley, Christchurch.

The whole street is likely to be bowled but no one knows when they'll have to move, so they keep their things in storage and clothes in suitcases: lives unpacked. Good Canterbury folk, they just get on with it, but they can't hide their anger and frustration.

Nothing seems to be happening. Long hours are spent on the phone to the Earthquake Commission, the city council, insurance companies. "We'll get back to you," the call centre operator says. They hear nothing for weeks. Many just want to be paid out so they can move on.

"I'm just kind of stuck in limbo really," says Laura McConchie, whose house sale fell through when the quake hit. "They've just forgotten about us."

Across the street Annette Preen surveys the house she abandoned immediately after the quake. It's 30cm higher at one end than the other. Like many, she's received the maximum payout from the ECQ ($115,000, minus a $1200 excess), but her insurance company is yet to make any decisions.

At one point someone came around to take measurements to determine if the home would be demolished. "I thought `what the hell is he doing wasting five hours here – anyone can see by looking at it that it's absolutely munted'. Why can't I just bulldoze it?"

But nothing can happen until the ECQ, insurance companies and geotechnical engineers have co-ordinated their plans, says Bexley residents association president Barry Tutt.

"The hold-up is the geotechnical reports. While they have determined in broad brushstrokes what they are going to do, they have yet to get down to the finer detail."

The EQC plans to build a massive submerged retaining wall around the edge of the wetlands that surrounds Pacific Park, to stop "lateral spread".

"Until that is done, everyone is sitting on their hands. They won't do any physical work until the remediation is complete, or at least until we have four weeks without any severity for earthquakes. There's a lot of `hurry up and wait' going on."

Residents have been told it could be up to five years before they can move into rebuilt homes on strengthened land, and for many that is unthinkable.

"Some elderly don't know if they will be around in five years," Tutt says. "A mechanism to allow them to extract their funds and move on is desirable."

Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel, herself a Bexley resident whose home was damaged, says communication has been "appalling" and leadership lacking. The government needs to provide solutions, she says.

"I challenge the prime minster to come to Seabreeze Close again. He was happy to go there with the television cameras, but he should go there again. Come and see what it's really like for people five months on."

WHEN THE earthquake struck at 4.35am on September 4, volcanoes of sand erupted into the homes and yards of Seabreeze residents, a process known as liquefaction. It took days to dig out the silt and bulldozers were needed to clear the road. Five months on, there are still huge piles of sand in Laura McConchie's backyard.

But for a cruel twist of fate, McConchie, 32, wouldn't be here. She and her partner had separated and moved out of the four-bedroom home, putting it on the market and accepting an offer of $400,000, the same amount they paid for it. By September 4 the sale had gone unconditional, but they agreed to let the contract go after the quake hit.

Because she was not living in the house at the time, McConchie was not eligible for emergency rental payments from her insurance company, AMI. She stayed with her parents but in December decided to move back into the badly damaged home, as storage was costing her a fortune and her dog and three cats were overcrowding her parents. She is now paying a mortgage, rates and insurance by herself.

She found the toilets would overflow and was having to drive to her parents' house, until a Port-a-loo was delivered. She was using that right up until last week, when the council installed a septic tank.

McConchie has received the maximum EQC payment, which went straight onto her mortgage, but has yet to have a visit from the engineering company carrying out assessments for AMI and has been told it could be another eight weeks.

An emergency call centre trainer for St John, she is spending more and more time at work to avoid coming home. "I don't like inviting people over because it's not the same house, I've been putting things up here and there just to make it a bit more homely, but I just don't feel comfortable in it. You just kind of shut yourself away. It's no way to live."

Dalziel has written to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee on McConchie's behalf, calling on his help in what the MP calls "exceptional circumstances". Brownlee wrote back saying the best possible outcome for people who wanted to withdraw equity from earthquake-damaged properties was to sell them on the open market, rather than to the government, and there was evidence that house sales were returning to normal levels.

McConchie was disgusted by the response. "I've been a taxpayer since I was 18... all I'm asking for is some kind of solution to help us out. Surely the government can do something and say `we'll take this over, we'll give you the money, you can go and do what you like and we'll rebuild and sell the houses when the time comes'. But they don't want to do that because they know they'll never sell."

Dalziel says Brownlee's response is a cop-out. "The government needs to be thinking about how to facilitate a solution. It doesn't necessarily have to be taxpayer or ratepayer-funded, it may be this is the ideal opportunity for a public-private partnership that they keep talking about. There have to be some choices for people."

While she plays the waiting game, McConchie has set up a Facebook page for "Pacific Park earthquake survivors", where people can share images of earthquake damage and advice on how to deal with the authorities. Some are keen on the idea of legal action against the council, which previously owned the land and sold it to developers in the early 90s.

"They should never have allowed the development to go ahead," McConchie says.

She is torn between wanting to just get out, and staying put to ensure she gets a fair outcome.

"Some people have said to me `just walk away, walk away and lose all your money' but I can't do that. I want to buy another house. It just feels like my life is on hold."

AS ANNETTE Preen, a nature photographer, stands in what is left of her garden, a flock of Canadian geese flies over, heading for the Pacific Park wetlands. "This is why I love living here," says Preen, whose house was over-run by a "tsunami" of liquefied sand when the quake hit. She smashed her way out of her front door, only to fall face-first into several feet of mud. "It was like quicksand, it sucked you in."

Preen is another who was not eligible for rent assistance, as her house insurance is with AMI and her contents with Tower. Through the intervention of Christchurch National MP Aaron Gilmore, Tower was persuaded to pay Preen rental assistance until the contents claim is settled. She has spent the five months since the quake house-sitting for friends – she laughingly calls herself a gypsy – and all her belongings are in storage.

Preen is still waiting to hear how much AMI is prepared to pay for the wrecked home. If it is a decent price, she will "take the money and run", accepting her dream home is gone. The thought of waiting years to rebuild on the site does not appeal.

"I'm 67 this year. Who wants to be stuffing around for the rest of your life waiting to get into your own home? All I'll be able to afford is an over-60s unit."

She will still own the land, however, and could face costs associated with fixing it.

Preen has found the process infuriating, and is staggered that she still has to pay full insurance on the home.

"There's a lack of communication, you don't get told anything and you sit for hours on the phone. The day after the earthquake, someone said `the worst is yet to come'. I didn't think it could get any worse than the earthquake, but dealing with insurance companies is bloody annoying. It is just sheer frustration, which turns to anger, which turns to tears."

Next door the Pockson family is worrying about its health. A week before Christmas, Jeff and Lavina and their three children developed severe coughs, which they suspect were caused by the silt they are constantly having to remove from their home.

They were put on antibiotics and the youngest, eight-month-old Charlie, also required Ventolin and a course of steroids. The family moved out of the house for a month after the quake, but decided to move back because they couldn't afford mortgage and rental payments long-term. "It's not pretty any more, but it's liveable," Lavina says.

Like their neighbours, they are waiting for a definitive word from AMI as to whether their home will be demolished. They accept they will have to rebuild on the same site, because with equity tied up in the land, they cannot afford to buy elsewhere.

Lavina says the children have shown signs of stress, but have been getting better. She says living in Seabreeze Close is strange.

"It's been a beautiful street in its time. It's sad to look out at houses that were well groomed, people out with their lawnmowers and gardening at weekends, and all of a sudden it's silt and weeds and overgrown grass."

THERE WERE signs last week that those in charge of the earthquake recovery are making moves to appease the growing anger among homeowners across the city.

The Earthquake Recovery Commission announced it will hire more staff, conceding there is a "gap" in its quake response. Commission chairman Murray Sherwin says a project management team and communication team will oversee post-quake recovery, but Labour's earthquake recovery spokesman, Clayton Cosgrove, says that amounts to hiring a PR firm "to tell the world how wonderful the government is".

Brownlee hinted to residents at a public meeting in Kaiapoi that there will be help for those whose insurance cover for temporary accommodation is set to run out on March 4 after six months, but won't give details until this week.

Meanwhile, the city council has decided to hold fortnightly meetings on earthquake recovery as a compromise with councillor Tim Carter, who had wanted a special committee.

Dalziel is concerned that the poor communication means many residents misunderstand the recovery process and what it means for them, and for some, things will "turn to custard".

"Some people who think their houses are going to be demolished and rebuilt are going to find out that their insurer thinks it's cheaper to repair, and they will be the only house in that street in that category – everything else will be demolished around them."

She says some homeowners don't understand the technical reports released by the EQC.

"A lot of people thought when the suburb-specific geotech reports came out, they would tell them what would happen to their property, but they don't. They are really designed for engineers and council officers, who will use them as a reflection of the state of the land in a particular suburb, rather than each individual section."

Brownlee is calling for patience. While many Seabreeze residents fear their properties will never sell, Brownlee takes the opposite view.

"Most properties at Seabreeze performed at a performance measure [during the quake] of zero to one – the remediation work that the government is funding will take that up to four, five and above. In future those sections will be known to have been treated against the worst effects of lateral spreading, which I think will enhance the value."

Although he cannot give a timeframe, he believes once the civil works begin, values will return to the properties quickly and people will be able to make decisions "more speedily than the long time they're currently talking".

He says while he sympathises with people like McConchie, there are risks in rushing ahead.

"We had concerns that if people were just assessed, `you've got $40,000 worth of damage, here's the cheque', the temptation would be to get it done for around that price and possibly less. The consequence of that could be you get all sorts of degradation of property over time.

"The overall stipulation is `get it right'. It would have been easy to have said `OK, it was a one in 500 year event, that gives you a mathematical probability of it not happening in the next 50 years, so why don't we just tidy things up, sprinkle a bit of magic dust and go back to the way we were'. That would be unacceptable for the long-term life of the city and the individual equity for people."

2010 Earthquake at a glance:

$700m – the amount paid out by the Earthquake Commission so far.

178,454 – total number of claims since September

4. 60% – the number of claims assessed

14,212 – number of claims that came in for Boxing Day aftershock

3500 – number of homes which may have to be rebuilt

$3.5 billion – upper estimate of total cost

250 – number of EQC teams in the field working six days a week

March 31 – date by which EQC hopes to have completed all assessments

Sunday Star Times