Quake victims left to own devices

CLEARED AWAY: An area of tsunami-devasted Sendai is pictured in this combination photo taken on March 12, 2011 - the day after the earthquake and tsunami - and September 1, 2013.
CLEARED AWAY: An area of tsunami-devasted Sendai is pictured in this combination photo taken on March 12, 2011 - the day after the earthquake and tsunami - and September 1, 2013.

Earthquake Commission chairman and former ambassador to Japan Sir Maarten Wevers returned to the devastated Japanese city of Sendai late last year. He discovered the recovery - often thought to be out-pacing Christchurch - is fraught with issues on a scale not experienced in New Zealand.

On March 11, 2011, residents of the Japanese city of Sendai were preparing to start a street collection for the earthquake- devastated people of Christchurch when a magnitude-9 earthquake struck, triggering a huge offshore tsunami that tore apart nearby coastal towns and took the lives of tens of thousands.

I know Sendai very well. There's an active New Zealand Society up there.

The chairwoman told me that the society members were all ready to go out on the streets and raise money for Christchurch on the very day the earthquake and tsunami struck.

The scale of the disaster in Japan was enormous - 25,000 dead, 5500 people unaccounted for.

In effect, Japan suffered three disasters in March 2011: The magnitude-9 quake, the tsunami it generated, and the nuclear disaster that followed quickly from there.

The extent of devastation across the region has to be seen to be believed. Whole towns are gone.

People still own the land, but the authorities and the people themselves are attempting to create their own sorts of red zones.

Some people have been told they can't rebuild where they used to live any more because it's too dangerous. Understandably, some have not accepted that. They say: "Our family has been here for 300 years and we're not moving."

On the other hand, some towns and villages are keen to be relocated en masse.

The logistics and local politics involved are making the residential recovery very slow.

This is not helped by the complex structure of local government in the region. Different towns, municipalities and villages have their own small local authority, and they're all making their own decisions.

The disaster has impacted on these authorities in devastating ways, too. None of them have got any money any more. In a lot of cases the town hall has gone, so all the records have gone, and with it all the paperwork. The people who administered the town, all the town clerks and council staff have been killed. It's incomparably more difficult than it is for us.

I've seen comparisons made between the insurance responses in Christchurch and Sendai, with the implication being that in Japan insurance claims have been managed far better. Certainly the pay-out by the private Japanese insurance companies has been rapid. However the insurance arrangements in the two countries are very different.

Less than half the homeowners in the Sendai area have earthquake insurance. And the level of payout is lower than in New Zealand.

There is no equivalent of the Canterbury Home Repair Programme in Japan.

Because all claims for damage are cash settled, every homeowner is left to their own devices. The result is that ultimately the repair work will take a long, long time to complete.

But this is not a criticism of Japan's approach to earthquake recovery. Each country's circumstances are what they are, and each response must be guided by the existing legislative and administrate arrangements.

Most Japanese people I spoke to were very impressed at how comprehensive and universal our coverage was. They were also interested to learn that EQC is managing the residential repair programme.

Both the commission and the 20-year old act that governs it can of course be improved, and the Government has indicated it intends to review the Earthquake Commission Act.

What is clear from the experience in Japan is that having EQC is much better than not having EQC.

What concerns me, as EQC chairman, is understanding our preparedness for natural disasters, including that of coastal communities for a major tsunami.

If we had a magnitude-9 earthquake in the Kermadec Trench, do we know what sort of damage that would bring to New Zealand? Would we have the resources to recover, or would we need overseas assistance?

What changes can we make to building and engineering standards, and planning and development regulations to limit exposure to a future tsunami?

No community in New Zealand can recover on its own - affected communities will draw on the strength of the rest of New Zealand, which is exactly what EQC provides for Christchurch.

There's no doubt the Canterbury earthquakes have provided the biggest test for the EQC scheme, and that it has demonstrated the ability to provide significant and valuable help to quake-affected communities.

The critical task is to learn from natural disasters here and abroad, and end up with a better EQC as a result.

Sir Maarten Wevers was appointed Earthquake Commission chairman in 2013. He was ambassador to Japan from 1994 to 1997.

The Southland Times