They can be heroes, day after day …
There’s another story in the ruins and rebirth of post-quakes Christchurch for me at seven years on from February 22, 2011.
The villains have had a good workout. We all have our own list. The crooks, the cons, the shysters high and low – all in their own slimy way “here to help with the rebuild”.
Then there are the people who have inspired and sustained us through to the other side where you are settled in insurance terms and deeply, profoundly unsettled in yourself.
I’ll kick off with on the day in our fourth floor central city office, where when the Feb 22 biggie rocked us metres out of plumb some of the staff’s first thought was to open a window to let in the poor bastards outside on the scaffolding.
Scaffolding from the repairs post the September quake that had just been signed off by a man and a woman. They looked white even for Christchurch when we let them in. Never saw them again.
Then my colleague Nick Clarke, who had been trained in disaster response, motored off down the stairs and across the road to start pulling out the maimed and others from collapsed buildings across the road.
Within days, he and I set up shop co-ordinating the international aid groups who flew in under the media radar. We set up a collective NGO shop to help our shattered city. I’d had a crash course in disaster communication the year before in Haiti, running media and political advice for the boss of one of the world’s largest aid and development groups.
I kept the day job too: running on so much adrenalin it took months to work out one knee was badly buggered getting out of town after the quake.
It’s easy now to forget that the ground just kept shaking all the time. Pretty much hourly.
Soon after the phones got reliable again, I heard from Christchurch’s supreme networker and facilitator, Garry Moore, who now suffers under the ex-Mayor title for the rest of his mortal days. His house was stuffed and his business interests in inner city bars were the same. But being Garry he had a few side projects on the go.
“You really need to talk to Gerard Smyth the movie guy, he‘s got some amazing film coming in right from the day on and he needs a hand to put the story together,” was the gist of it.
Indeed he had – and being Gerard, he too just kept going from his creative base inside what had then become the red zone.
I helped out with the development for what became the best quake film that ever will be, When A City Falls.
Some days we would be bouncing around the floor of my cottage less than 1km from the Port Hills fault, clutching our laptops through the aftershocks, spurred on to the tight, tight launch deadline by the Irish incentive, a chorus of it “can’t be done” from others.
He made it. At the premiere every time the sound of a big quake coming in boomed out you could feel all the locals hunching up. Sharon was holding hands with a senior Civil Defence guy to help them both keep it together.
If you ever want to see what it was like here, buy the movie. It’s truthful.
Some of the film in it was taken right after the quake hit and Gerard hit the inner city streets, using a camera whose half-broke lens had to be held on by hand.
There was an urgency to telling that story, but at that time the day to day storytelling was being done locally superbly by the Press newspaper under then-editor Andrew Holden.
They lost their building and several staff. They took hits physical and mental, but just kept going.
So there’s another hero shout-out.
Nationally, the truth tellers of the Christchurch quakes were what Campbell Live was then. Even after the murky demise of that superb show on TV3, John Campbell and producer Pip Keane stayed right on the case for Christchurch, through quakes, floods and fire. They still are. Even the latest case of flood danger this week.
As the quake aftermath kept unfolding we tried to keep it together for our family, ranging in age from still-young sons through to my parents in the throes of early dementia.
I found out my knee had torn cartilage but it took a year to navigate through the maze of ACC and Southern Cross. It was Southern Cross who finally broke the Catch 22 standoff between private insurance and ACC and got me the op.
The day I got the first diagnosis I stopped off in my old Brighton hood to get some anti-inflammatory stuff from the chemist. They told us about their February quake experience. “And then the stock just flew off the shelves,” the receptionist said, just as a magnitude 6 hit and it all happened again. The shop is closed now and the South Brighton block of shops it was in is gone.
We worked in a holiday a year or so later with damaged immune systems, which was not so good an idea. We got a virus and all got sick. It has never totally gone away.
One of the few really good ideas the then-government had in early 2011 was to provide a wage and salary subsidy for Christchurch businesses affected by the quake. It helped keep the NGO I had taken an income cut to work with afloat, so there, grudgingly I must hand out a salute to something good National did. When I got really sick with the virus I had to stop full time work.
The repair estimate offer by EQC for our battered house was so low we just disengaged from the process on the legitimate grounds we were ill. The final settlement was vastly more than they claimed it would be.
In the hard winters that followed we kept warm by hunting down farm trees that had fallen in a gale through the contacts of my mate Lou and chopping them up and drying them out.
The hell floods of 2014, a trifecta of once-in-100-years rains, came closest of anything to breaking me in a life that has not been without challenges. It also turned into the start of the pathway to resolution for us.
Once again, supreme networker Garry Moore popped up. With his own immersive flood experience he tipped us off to the work of the wonderful Jo Byrne and now MP but then law ace Duncan Webb.
Jo and her family sank several times below the Plimsoll line of her home in Flockton, the floodiest part of town. When she entered the fray of insurance and seeking solutions from local and central government she pretty much decided it was not good enough and emerged as a natural leader.
You will have seen her on TV and heard her on the radio. She has become a good mate to Sharon and me. Amid this week's flood risk she offered us a bolthole at her new home.
Jo helped put together information sharing meetings for flooding victims and quake casualties trying to find their way through the maze of bullshit from EQC and insurers.
At one of these Duncan Webb – who offered tons of free legal advice and took part in High Court judgement trial to get clarity – summed it up when he said New Zealand “has a legal system, not a justice system”. He also explained that it was up to us, the policy owners, to prove our damage. These two simple ideas set us on the road to resolution, proving our damage and finding the people to do it.
We have a 1920s cottage with a rubble foundation that broke apart in the February quake. The network we were now in pointed us to Bevan Craig of Auckland based Underfoot Services. Much disliked by EQC, he quickly established our foundations were indeed shot. It was a sharp contrast to EQC’s estimated $591 worth of damage.
The proving business can be costly. One of the best supports we got was from our bank ASB, which helped bankroll much of the next stage of proof and presentation of our evidence. Shout-out ASB, you saved our butts!
The whole proof process involves a plethora of skills – engineers, structural engineers, quantity surveyors, lawyers, geotech testing – and is another article in itself.
We found our lawyer in a bar at a talk he gave at what was effectively Christchurch Resistance HQ, Garry Moore’s kid’s bar Smash Palace.
Ex-detective and class action expert Grant Cameron told us how he had come to in the early stages of the truckload of legal work flowing from the quakes and thought to himself “Hang on I’m just a boy from Bexley when it gets down to it.”
Grant and his firm, GCA Lawyers, have helped so many people lost in the legal maze of quake resolution get through. With us as fellow pros with prole backgrounds, he put together a multi-point list of what needed to be done to get settled.
He assigned the sharpest lawyer we have ever come across.
Laura Bain was a killer in high heels. Elegant, polished and so specific that as she herded first the hapless EQC out the door, put us over cap and then started on the insurer’s hired guns we nicknamed her the “clipboard of fear”.
Now, we believe, conquering the UK, Laura was that rarest of professionals – one who could interpret and decode complex law to levels ex-journos could understand.
In a mega shout-out to Laura, who helped set us free, I think of the old song “Tell Laura I Love Her”, in the most prim and fiscally relieved way of course.
One of the things about the quake recovery resolution process in Christchurch that has not been covered much was the insane levels of sexism in what was a male-run and testosterone-ruled world.
Sharon studied geography at university and knows building inside out, so she understood what was going on seismically and structurally. When we were negotiating with engineers and quantity surveyors they would give her the flick if they could.
So she would have to brief me (I was once told by a management guru I had the body language of a Glasgow street thug) to front them. It really does need sorting, I’m sure many women have been screwed over in the resolution process by this.
Woven into this 18 month long process, we kept an eye on the efforts of our local MPs, many of whom are now in the new Government.
Ruth Dyson, Megan Woods and Poto Williams all worked their guts out. So did Nicky Wagner from the other team.
In August last year we finally settled with our insurers. I can’t tell you how we did because of confidentiality.
Who was worse to deal with: EQC or the insurer? EQC by a long shot. IAG were business-like and no pushover, but they got on with it.
Now we have a freehold house of battered structural integrity and some freedom from constant worry.
Could we, for all our skills and life experience, have done this without the many wonderful people we either met or re-connected with?
No, not a chance.
I feel shifty at how much altruistic public-spirited heroism we have met along the way.
Somehow these folk often facing their own personal dramas can be heroes. Day after day.
Thanks to you all from us and the one/s I have doubtless missed out.
In fact, I nearly missed out Sharon’s aunt and uncle, Mike and Madeleine who when she took them some peaches a few years ago asked if we wanted a glasshouse.
A big, solid old-school glasshouse on a rental they were selling.
We did and moved it in two sections on a yuge trailer hustled by my mate Lou.
It is my happy place. Sharon gets to visit and eat the produce but all my life it turns out what I wanted most was to be a dear old man tending his tomato plants in his glasshouse.
Helped by the heroes of the recovery to get there.