Insurers helping to transform Chch

Last updated 09:05 23/07/2013

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OPINION: The "urgency and passion" shown by the insurance industry in dealing with the Christchurch earthquakes is at odds with the suggestions of some, according to Samson Samasoni.

In June 2013, I returned home to New Zealand after 13 years overseas, aware through media reports that a pathway for the recovery of Christchurch had been mapped out but that many were still feeling dislocated, dissatisfied and in distress. The insurance industry I was about to join was being blamed for much of the misery.

The first four weeks in my new role were revealing.

Amid media stories about the insurance industry deliberately delaying the rebuild, the consenting issue at the Christchurch City Council and builders being forced to lay off staff, the picture that was being painted for me through the private stories I was hearing and exposure to the workings of the industry was significantly different to the public image.

My very first week back in Christchurch, a cab driver volunteers that he's settled his claim with IAG and is "all sorted", a woman in the hotel explains that her family are in a "lovely new house" but she doesn't talk about it too openly because some of her friends are still going through the process, another man is going to a friend's house-warming party thanks to his settlement and someone else has received his EQC payout but is "going to sit on the money for a while" before he decides what to do.

After explaining to me the intricacies of finding new foundation solutions for the different categories of land, Southern Response chief executive Peter Rose gives me a tour of his offices at Show Place.

There is one group of staff huddled around a table prioritising "vulnerable customers", another team is trying to address for customers the complexities of living on a shared property or cross-leases and yet another team are working with Arrow to organise customer sessions to explain the roll-out of their repairs programme.

I attend my first meeting of a group where the general managers from the insurance companies and Earthquake Commission meet for 2 1/2 hours each fortnight, methodically trying to unravel the blockages that are hampering progress.

They review pilot projects that have been set up to test methodologies and procedures; they share experiences to gain a collective understanding for how to speedily move forward, at all times accentuating the need for pragmatic solutions to achieve positive outcomes for their customers and the public of Christchurch.

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It's clear they accept the situation isn't perfect and are frustrated but they are doing everything within their collective powers to progress the rebuild as quickly as they can within the constraints confronting them.

The urgency and passion with which everyone works seem completely at odds with suggestions this is an industry deliberately trying to delay settlements and the overall rebuild programme.

Explanations of the financial imperatives for insurance companies to complete the programme within the timeframe to satisfy obligations to shareholders and reinsurers make complete sense to me but it's the palpable dedication of the insurance company teams that is compelling and infectious. That is even more noteworthy when you understand that they, too, call Christchurch home and are personally having to deal with the same issues their customers face.

Having worked on the National Vision programme of a Middle Eastern country that had its population double over four years and where half the city has been built from scratch over seven years, I understand the complexities of a major metropolitan building programme.

But nothing I've known previously has been as complex and challenging as the Christchurch rebuild.

Comparisons with other disasters and other cities in the world almost seem unhelpful to me because the sheer size and dynamics involved in rebuilding Christchurch are unprecedented.

The constant earthquakes, the need to apportion liability between events and the key players, the High Court decision in 2012 which clarified responsibilities between insurers and EQC, the new building codes for Christchurch, the categorising of land, the significant issues with liquefaction, the difficulties customers face understanding their entitlements and the decisions they need to make for their future - all these have created a unique set of circumstances that challenges everyone.

One local builder told me, his industry is challenging preconceived notions of how to go about a safe and sustainable rebuild programme. He explains builders need to adopt a new paradigm for the way they work in Christchurch.

Some are struggling to get their heads around the role of a project management office and the complexities of repairing and rebuilding thousands of homes in a co-ordinated and efficient way over a short period of time.

However, many Christchurch businesses have come to grips with the new economic and commercial landscape in which they now find themselves. Insurance companies have settled over $7.5 billion of commercial and residential claims since the earthquakes - $1b of that went on business interruption insurance, ensuring businesses in Christchurch could re-establish themselves, that people could continue to be employed and ensure their pay packets were intact.

Yes, there are a number in the community who are still in distress. From my limited experience, insurance companies are prioritising those who they know are most vulnerable.

The wellbeing of the people of Christchurch is at the top of the agenda of most of the meetings I attend.

It's clear that the rebuild programme is ramping up. In 2014 more than 30 per cent of the total residential rebuild and repairs programme will be undertaken.

In 2015 it will continue apace and it will be wrapped up by the end of 2016.

Certainly there may be a handful of challenging cases that may continue, but as the year 2016 comes to a close, the insurance industry will have played an indelible role in helping to transform Christchurch.

My three young sons lived through the major Christchurch earthquakes.

So I'm very proud to tell them that I am part of an industry that is competently and diligently supporting the recovery and rebuild of Christchurch, helping to secure their futures in the city that is their home.

Samson Samasoni joined the Insurance Council of New Zealand as communications manager in June after more than a decade overseas working mostly in the Middle East.

- The Press

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