Trapped in quake-damaged suburbs

Last updated 09:53 30/04/2012
John Patterson
DEAN KOZANIC/FAIRFAX NZ
In limbo: John Patterson says he would like someone to tell him when his house will be rebuilt or repaired.

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JOHN PATTERSON writes from an older person's viewpoint about being trapped in Christchurch's quake-damaged eastern suburbs.

I am writing as a 75-year-old trapped in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch. I find that the hardest thing to take is the loss of control of our lives.

For all our married lives my wife and I could sell up and move to anywhere we wanted to live. Now we can't. For most of us our house is our main asset. For many of us it's our only asset.

At the moment my house has no value and what happens next will be decided by other people I don't even know. We won't have that control back until we have a house with value again and I don't know when that will be. If it takes a few years I am conscious that I could be in my 80s by then and I don't know what I will be like then. I would like to share with you some of my observations.

There are seemingly very few collective solutions being considered for Christchurch and vast bureaucracies in both the public and private sectors seem to be getting rich on my problems, and those of my fellow citizens.

I'm also not sure that the bureaucracies are learning from overseas expertise. We should be talking with and listening to as many overseas experts as we can.

I am looking at this through the eyes of an old retired builder. I came to New Zealand from the UK in the early 1970s to build houses in Invercargill for the workers of the new aluminium smelter at Tiwi Point. I ended my career as a building supervisor and inspector.

A lot of planning seems to be going on with the rebuild of the CBD and apparently land is being developed for new houses, but I haven't heard much about the planning in the areas where major repairs and rebuilding of broken houses have to be carried out.

Working as I did on the big sites in the UK and in charge of quite a few, everything had to be planned to the finest detail to complete the job on time. The last big job I did there was 700 high-density dwellings plus a shopping centre and a school for a local authority. There were 500 men working on that site and everyone had to know what the others were doing.

Christchurch will be one of the biggest building sites anywhere, and unless it is organised like this the people of Christchurch could be living in misery for years to come. It will be much more difficult in Christchurch because the buildings will be for thousands of different owners right across the city.

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Will we be able to get all the builders, insurance companies, EQC, council etc to work together as one in specific areas and complete all the work efficiently, effectively and as quickly as possible then move on to the next area? The people living in these areas need to be disrupted as little as it can possibly be. It will be an enormous logistical problem.

What I have seen so far doesn't fill me with confidence. This last year we have had EQC assessors in our street. They inspect a house and then go elsewhere and come back a couple of weeks later, inspect another house and off they go again. All the insurance companies have different firms carrying out their inspections and they keep coming and going also.

My house was damaged in the February 22, 2011, quake and it is very likely that we will need a rebuild. My insurance company has been very good, keeping me up to date as best as they can but even their hands are tied. Other people are not so lucky, I have met many people who have no idea what's happening.

People need to know where they are in the planning of this citywide building project and who the people doing the planning are. We need to have some idea of when our houses will be repaired or rebuilt. We have all been living from day to day long enough.

Does anyone know how many houses will have to be rebuilt? I know quite a few in my own street but anyone passing by would have no idea anything was wrong.

Do we know how many tradesmen we need, carpenters, plumbers, electricians etc? Do we know how many supervisors or building inspectors we will need? Do we know where we are going to get them all from? Will the manufacturers and suppliers of building material be able to cope with the demand? Will the insurance companies start working together? Will the council be taking a leading role? What is the council's relationship with Cera like? How does the Government's newly- announced Central Christchurch Development Unit fit in? Who is in charge?

People in the red zone have been to hell and back over these last 16 months, and now they do have some idea of what's happening, but we still have people living in orange and white zones waiting for their property to be reclassified. They have been waiting for a long time.

I live in a green TC3 zone with properties needing major repairs or a complete rebuild. Before any work can proceed we will need a geotechnical report to see if the land can carry a house then a structural engineer to design the foundations.

Planning the house comes next, which then has to go to the council for building consent. When all this has been done the people will need a date for when the work will begin. They will then have to find alternative accommodation, pack up all their belongings and move. They will have to do it all over again when they move back when the work is completed. Moving once is very stressful, never mind twice.

The EQC and insurance people will deal with the geotech people and structural engineers, but the people themselves will have to discuss with their insurance company and builder about the new house to be built.

Many people have replacement value insurance. Do they know exactly what this means?

How do we go through this process quickly without rushing the people into making the wrong decisions? At times like this people are very vulnerable, especially the elderly. Who is there in this whole process who will act on their behalf?

We have read in The Press how difficult it is to find rented accommodation now in Christchurch. Are there any plans for temporary accommodation for people having this work done?

There is a hell of a lot to think about and plan for. How will people cope with all of this? The city is running on rumour and misinformation. I am amazed at what I hear, but what can you expect when you have a lot of questions and no answers.

People HAVE to know very soon. Just take my wife and I for example. If we were told that work on our house and our street will begin in three years time then at least we would know and could get on with our lives.

It's not just the buildings, the roads, the sewerage pipes, the water mains that are broken, the people are broken also.

My main concern is for the people, and you can't repair the people until they know what is going to happen to their house, to their street, to their suburb, to their city. A very real concern for our older citizens is what happens if their health causes them to need to move to a retirement village and their house is not repaired or rebuilt. Who will buy their house? Will this be fertile territory for rip-off merchants to capitalise on their misfortune?

Even if you end up with a new house how many years will it be before it has a reasonable resale value? These questions are not just economic, they embrace fundamental social justice issues. As I said at the start, the current approach toward the rebuild is individualising the solutions. The questions I raise are those for a decent civil society to debate.

What we have come through is an act of nature and beyond anyone's control which has affected everyone, young and old alike but I would hate to think that the restoration of my control could be delayed by an inefficient building or bureaucratic process. I just hope that if I do reach my 80s I will see the beginnings of the new and exciting Christchurch that one day my grandchildren will be running. Now that's not too much to ask - is it?

John Patterson, when he retired from building, started the Mature Employment Service and was a co-founder of the Third Age Forum. He lives in Parklands and does not agree with the whole area being red zoned. A meeting for older people, especially from the eastern suburbs, to talk to Cera chief executive Roger Sutton CEO will take place tomorrow, May 1 at Parklands Baptist Church, 180 Queenspark Drive, from 1pm-2.30pm.

- The Press

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