Statistician tracks rebuild progress

Last updated 06:46 03/08/2013

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The Rebuild

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A statistician collecting data on rebuild progress in one Christchurch neighbourhood is getting under the skin of the Insurance Council. WILL HARVIE reports.

Tony Aldridge strides briskly up Janice Place in Mt Pleasant, Christchurch, peering closely at every house.

"Is that a repair or a rebuild?" he asks. "Even the owner won't know."

The grass is cut, the recycling bin is in use and it looks as if somebody is living in the modest and likeable 1960s home.

Aldridge marks the address as "Don't know" on his clipboard and then eyeballs a vacant section nearby. A house obviously stood here once. The outlines of a foundation scar the land, but there's no evidence of a rebuild under way - no fences, no workers. On the clipboard, the address is entered as demolished. Aldridge scoots up a walkway to Clementine Lane. Scaffolding embraces a once- proud house on the uphill side. Clearly it's a repair and that data point goes onto the clipboard. Across the street, Aldridge spies a resident tinkering in a garage and quizzes him gently on his status. An over-cap repair, start date unknown. Aldridge makes a note.

He has done this for every house in Mt Pleasant, all 1635 of them, four times now. He is a professional statistician and is voluntarily producing a database and maps on his computer of the repair and rebuild of his neighbourhood.

From the data and maps, he extracts knowledge. What's the progress? How quickly will the rebuild happen? Are insurance companies meeting their promises?

The results of his fourth survey, completed eight days ago, are not promising. He estimates 300 to 400 houses in Mt Pleasant need to be completely rebuilt or require repairs so substantial that they might as well be rebuilds.

Friday week, three rebuilds were finished. At this rate, he extrapolates using what he calls "street-fighting arithmetic", the rebuild in Mt Pleasant won't be done until the 2020s. Late last month, Insurance Council of New Zealand communications manager Samson Samasoni wrote an article in The Press that promised "the total residential rebuild and repairs programme . . . will be wrapped up by the end of 2016".

That's not just Mt Pleasant, but the whole of Canterbury. So, who is right?

Obviously, the residential rebuild is just starting to gain momentum. Three rebuilds were under way in Mt Pleasant in October 2012, the date of Aldridge's first survey. Seven were under way in January, 19 were under way in April and 25 as of last week.

That's "fantastic" progress, he says, but not enough and not quickly enough.

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If progress is slow in Mt Pleasant, then perhaps we can expect slow progress in other neighbourhoods. As Mt Pleasant is a big rock, there was little liquefaction on the slopes. It's mostly classed technical category 1 (TC1). No special foundation work is required. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) green-zoned much of the suburb in September 2011.

Among the badly damaged eastern suburbs, Mt Pleasant seems a candidate for early attention from insurers.

Council response

Not one byte of this mapped data pleases the Insurance Council, which represents 27 insurers and reinsurers in New Zealand.

Samasoni blasts with both barrels, reloads and fires again.

"Unless Mr Aldridge has talked with each insurer, EQC [the Earthquake Commission] and all the homeowners involved, his projections would be about as accurate as taking a walk in Hagley Park on a sunny day and surmising it must be summer.

"My understanding is that Mr Aldridge hasn't asked to meet each insurer or the Insurance Council to discuss his methodology or projections. That would be a lot more helpful to him than misleading the public of Christchurch with his spurious assumptions and extrapolations.

"The rebuild programme is ramping up significantly in the second half of 2013 and insurers are completely confident about achieving the end of 2016 completion date, for a significant majority of the economic repairs and rebuilds they are managing."

Going forward

It's hard to get a picture of what's really happening in Christchurch's damaged suburbs.

The Christchurch City Council has consent numbers, but they are tedious to extract and come from a department now run by central Government because of mismanagement.

EQC loses track - rebuild or repair? - when an address goes over the $100,000 cap and the file is sent to private insurers.

Cera collects data from insurers, but declined to discuss it. The Insurance Council must drill into the databases of its members to collect comprehensive data on suburbs, but didn't go so far.

Into this knowledge gap walked Aldridge, the eyewitness. He's a fit 64-year-old, who spent the early years of his working life running tree surveys for the Forestry Service.

He later did applied maths and operational research at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, where public service was implanted in his character.

Latterly, he became a freelance statistician, his best client being the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter. He made a living collecting and crunching numbers.

Now semi-retired, he lost his Mt Pleasant home in the February 22, 2011, quake and is now into his sixth temporary home, with a seventh perhaps looming.

"I need to know because I'm displaced," he says of his motivation. "I like to know when it's going to happen. What's the rate of progress?"

"The suburb looks fine at a glance," he says, "but it's only when you walk the streets that damage becomes obvious.

"You have to walk down the driveways. There is no substitute." Each survey takes three days and sometimes a few hours longer.

He is quick to acknowledge that his methodology has flaws. Looking at a house from the driveway doesn't tell you much except that it is damaged. This is why Aldridge is not focused on repairs. He estimates 900 to 1000 houses in Mt Pleasant require quake repairs, but that's wobbly. Whether they are under cap, opt out, under-insured or over cap, he can't tell.

But demolitions and complete rebuilds? That's achievable, because houses get bulldozed and you don't have to be a building professional to count them. In the July survey, Aldridge counted 162 demolished houses.

He also counted 175 houses that have yet to be demolished but are "unequivocal rebuilds", which he defines as "demos or major repairs taking six months or more".

That's about the length of time some new builds take. Two and half years after the event, these houses are obviously shattered, he says. Tile roofs and bedrooms gape into the weather, foundations are split wide. Entering these buildings might be dangerous.

These are judgment calls, but Aldridge - handy but not a construction guy - insists he has pretty much got it right.

"I'm not getting anything to shake my confidence," he says after completing his fourth survey. But he has been fooled. Houses that looked like obvious rebuilds emerged as repairs, but then again sound- looking buildings turned into rebuilds. He cites a unscathed- looking, five-year-old home in Janice Place that is now a teardown, according to owner testimony provided to Aldridge. He has a "bunch" of that owner-told-him information and it contributes to the estimated 400.

Moreover, this is Mt Pleasant, the prosperous bedroom suburb that climbs the hill from Ferrymead Bridge. The epicentre of the February 2011 quake was about 1 kilometre away.

EQC records show 748 houses with more than $100,000 of damage (over cap).

Vero Insurance reports that about 70 per cent of its Mt Pleasant claims are repairs and 30 per cent are rebuilds. IAG says it has 1199 claims from Mt Pleasant (a whopping 73 per cent of the suburb) and just 137 are rebuilds. Aldridge estimates 300 to 400 rebuilds of 1600 homes, 18 to 25 per cent.

Yes, it's a "guesstimate", but his point is that nobody else has bothered to count the neighbourhood.

Samasoni has chambered more shells.

"Our view on Mt Pleasant is that the vast majority of claims are under cap and, of those over cap, most have been settled, are under construction or are in pre-construction," he says. "Almost half are in the pre-construction phase, so, of course, there will be little evidence of construction on site.

"The other point is that unless Mr Aldridge can tell you which of the houses he saw are being self-managed by the insured or are still to make a decision on their offer, he is not really in a position to make insightful comments from his walkabout . . . I'm very surprised The Press is taking [his] projections seriously."

Time frame

So how long will the rebuilds take? The Insurance Council sticks by its "end of 2016" promise, excluding a "handful of challenging cases". Sorry for the maths exercise, but there are about 1250 days between today and December 31, 2016. If there are, in fact, 300 rebuilds and repairs taking six months or more in Mt Pleasant, one home will have to be finished roughly every four days. That doesn't count the 900 or so lesser repairs in the same streets.

There is expected to be stiff competition for materials and skilled workers, bad weather and good. Fletcher is working away on under-cap repairs.

Some of Cera's anchor projects in the central city will be under way at the same time, as will big projects by commercial landowners.

"We will start the majority of construction work [in Mt Pleasant] in the next six to 12 months," says Vero's executive general manager, earthquake programme, Jimmy Higgins.

Vero "has committed to have all reinstatement work in Christchurch under way by 2015".

Vero's numbers improve as rebuild customers opt for cash instead of an insurer-built new house, which won't show up in Aldridge's counts. He sees an empty section, not a cashed-up customer.

IAG's numbers seriously challenge Aldridge's. It has 137 rebuilds from 1200 claims. Aldridge finds comfort in his definition of rebuild, which includes "repairs lasting six months or more". He suspects IAG has many Mt Pleasant homes categorised as repairs, when he calls them rebuilds.

Aldridge remains sceptical of the 2016 promise. "I take a dark view at times," he says, partly because that's the default mode for statisticians. They take a dim view until the data speak otherwise. Partly that's because of stress from his own lost home, unfulfilled insurance claims and what he has seen on his walks.

"Every dot on those maps is a life, a family, a whole story, and I want to keep that sense."

So who is right? The statistician or the insurers? We'll know on New Year's Eve 2016.

Will Harvie's over-cap Mt Pleasant home is currently being repaired by Tower Insurance.

- The Press

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