A dispatch from the front line

TOUGH CROWD: Sam Fisher says protesters have been invited to see the Southern Response war room, yet none have come.
TOUGH CROWD: Sam Fisher says protesters have been invited to see the Southern Response war room, yet none have come.

This week, I leave Southern Response after six months as communications manager. Since letting people know of my impending departure, I've had questions from friends, acquaintances, media and a range of others on why and what was wrong.

Southern Response wasn't overjoyed with me writing my thoughts here but stressed as an open organisation it was up to me.

My conclusion from six months was that the reputation issues of Southern Response are part of the broader earthquake picture and the way forward is targeted customer communication.

Working for Southern Response you quickly become aware of the complexity of the rebuild. The idea that we all know it's complicated and it should just be solved without complaining is hardly useful. People need to understand the time frames to know if they should wait or complain.

I am concerned that there has been no concerted approach to managing community expectations on how long the rebuild will take. The increasing dissatisfaction is inevitably part of the community trying to work out what is realistic and fair. The unrealistic time frames of some agencies complicate matters. We are talking years.

Never before in New Zealand's history have so many houses and so much infrastructure been needed at once. The number of houses usually built annually will be constructed each month. Southern Response alone is getting 60 to 90 building consents each month, leading to 60 to 90 houses completed monthly in just over a year's time.

Other insurers are working at a similar pace and I am very sure that the Southern Response targets are realistic. The evidence is in the Southern Response "war room", which is better than ones I've seen in political campaigns.

Protesters have all been invited to see it, yet none have come. On the walls are all the progress figures, delays, issues and the pipeline of getting all the houses fixed or rebuilt.

It is complicated when you consider all the stages: setting dollar amounts, site considerations, plans, land testing, resource consents through to construction.

Comparisons with other disasters and countries such as Japan and Australia are almost worthless and like comparing nashi pears and tiny apples to kiwifruit. In overseas disasters, there has been one event and insurance is for a set amount so pay them out their $200,000 - case closed.

One thing we have got right in New Zealand is the Government realised that with so many houses damaged or destroyed, we could have faced a nightmare of cowboy repairs, mounting prices and homeless families if insurance companies didn't manage the residential rebuild. Insurance is, after all, a social good allowing people some certainty in an uncertain future.

Southern Response is idiosyncratic and run more as a military campaign or wartime project than a company. But it is effective.

To cut a long story short, I have spent six months with the hardest working, most well-meaning professionals you could hope for. Certainly the sort of people I'd want to be helping sort people's broken houses and lives.

Arrow has added an incredible skill base and commitment. Insurance has never been a glamour industry and abuse is taken here as part of the job.

The staff are Canterbury residents with families, and who mostly support the Crusaders and have had broken houses and shared all the tragedies of their neighbours and customers.

Sometimes they are helping people who are troubled, greedy or confused. The abuse and issues staff face are unfair, particularly from Facebook groups.

Some customers are really only trying to insist on loading costs to turn their repair into a brand new house. Some are "vulnerable" and excellently managed by SR social workers, but still hard work.

Some have had substandard work done, usually by a builder not doing what they should. There have been mistakes, which people here are keen to put right. The protests have focused SR on listening more and not doing some of the odd things they did before I arrived.

Southern Response is a very hard environment. I happily survived the Beehive while I was making a difference, and the same was true here.

The place is a pressure cooker and staff are working well over 40 hours a week each, in some cases I suspect over 70 hours. The pressure to have the right stuff and resolve claims is very high. I've seen staff in tears despite many caring co-workers.

I am leaving to help with a range of projects, one of which is the single best development in Christchurch post quake - the Tannery.

While the Anglican Church is building in cardboard and glass, and retail is in tin sheds, the Tannery is building with bricks, well above the earthquake code.

The one thing this shares with insurance is it is about our future.

The Press