Anne and Martin

Christchurch flat land red zone

Area 5: Dallington, Burwood, Avonside

Red zoned in June 2011 due to liquefaction probability

Living on the red zone/green zone border

 

Anne and Martin's story 

Martin: I’m now 58 years old and I come from Bavaria. Before my 40th birthday I took a sabbatical − I was a Catholic priest for about 14 years of my life − and I decided to spend it in New Zealand. I was already rethinking what I would do for the rest of my life. I liked being a priest but I didn’t really embrace celibacy. It was really lonely. I come from a big family background and when I realised that it means living on your own I just didn’t want that. I decided to quit, and after thinking about it I thought I’d go to New Zealand. I’d heard a lot of good things, and one of the things I liked about New Zealand was there was the first female Anglican bishop in Dunedin. And I thought, I want to go and see this country, it is so beautiful and kind of advanced.

Then I fell in love with Anne and we decided we’d give it a go. I wrote a letter from here to my Bishop and quit. Anne and I, we travelled to Germany and were married there, in Bavaria, then we applied for residency and moved to New Zealand. It was 18 years ago this year. We had known each other for about a year before we married, and Anne had bought this house before that. I am a New Zealand resident, a permanent resident. 

Anne: Martin has worked as a teacher and I worked as a teacher aide. Then I found I could no longer tolerate Wi-Fi in schools − it made me ill and gave me migraines − so I left and did a bit of freelance writing. After the earthquakes the high-voltage lines went up. I’m also electrically hypersensitive and that affected my ability to concentrate in my house. Those lines have just gone down now, but I’ve still got ongoing problems as a result of the long-term exposure. I lived a lot away from the house in the early years. There were a lot of houses behind us that used the high-voltage lines.

Reasons for agreeing to the interview

Martin: This talking things through is nice for us, a healing experience, and I thank you for coming to us and taking us seriously. It has been healing and helpful for us. If we can help somebody else, it’s not entirely in vain. 

Anne: That’s how we rebuild as a society, isn’t it? Always looking at what can we learn from this?

Anne and Martin’s property

Anne: We’ve owned the home for 19 years, and when we came from Germany 18 years ago that’s when we first lived here, and we’ve been here ever since. [Home is] the place that nurtures you, that you come back to after a hard day outside. … There’s no insecurity about it; that we can put in potatoes for another year…  

Martin: We financed it together. And that was our house. More than a house it’s a home. We got this offer of $257,000 from CERA [Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] and we looked at it. On the one hand we had this house, and on the other hand we would have got the $257,000. And we said no, we’d rather have the house. That was our decision. We liked the house because it had done very well in the earthquake and also it had done very well over these years with Anne’s health. Her health condition is chemical sensitivity, and we made sure that everything was right in the house, so we said everything else is a risk. 

Anne: I bought a house before and have never been able to spend a night in it: I thought that it would be OK but there was something there. So it was great anxiety when we looked for a house that was just untreated wood. Our house was in a very poor state, so that when we renovated it we knew the products we were using and we also renovated and then left it to out-gas for half a year. So yes, the house means a lot to us because I can’t go into a new subdivision, and under the new Building Code I can’t build a new home with untreated wood. So it’s very good for me. I don’t metabolise it like people should. 

Martin: We both were a bit tense because we said what’s going to happen with us? 

Anne: I was desperate. 

Martin: We were tense because we had decided that we would not take the financial offer of our rating value, so we didn’t know what it all meant because it was unclear what red zoning meant.

Reasons for staying

Anne: I’m totally reliant on this place because I have multiple health conditions that mean I need a house that doesn’t have any treated chemical products in it. Also, we live very close to my elderly parents who are in their 80s, and this has been a harrowing year for them. My father has multiple myeloma, which is a type of blood cancer in the bone marrow, and it’s been a year of phone calls in the middle of the night and hospital admissions. Last week my mother was in hospital. On another occasion I popped in to see my father and he had just collapsed because of an infection due to the chemotherapy he was on. I see them daily and Martin and I are the closest ones to them. I always knew it was coming, and it did, you can’t avoid it, so we’re really, really grateful that we’re in close proximity to them for this reason, because that’s what family do. It’s tough.

The reasons for staying were health reasons, supporting family, supporting community, being close to my husband’s place of work so that we could maintain an income stream and be independent and financially able to cope with what was going on. Every agency we were dealing with in those early years was making it really difficult for us to maintain those core essential things that we needed to survive and that we valued as part of what it means for us. Am I saying that properly? To be a part of family and to be in a community with those around us and to have support from others and to give support − that’s part of our physical and mental and emotional wellbeing.

I’m so glad we’re still here and that we have the chance to care for my parents. They’re on the green side of the street.

Martin: They have the opposite problem. For them, all the other things have been removed. They’re grieving the loss of their neighbours.  

Anne: The people who would have been dropping in to see how they were doing after 45 years of living there.

The red zoning decision

Martin: I heard that we were red zoned when I was at school. A colleague of mine looked up on the computer where the red zone was and she came and said to me, “Do you know that your house is red zoned?” And I was absolutely … I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe that we were in the red zone. I thought there must be a huge mistake, because we had very little damage and we are far away from the river. And then when I looked … We didn’t know that this would lead to an uphill battle about everything that you normally expect. We found out online, it was a public thing that you could look up on a map whether you were red zoned or not, and then a letter came, I think, later on. 

Anne: We were both utterly intimidated by the initial processes around the red zoning, the way it was voluntary yet the pressures were immense from CERA to take their offer. Any processes for appeal were farcical, yet we had faith in those processes. It was emotionally, mentally and psychologically damaging to come to the realisation that, although we went through these processes with hope, genuine hope, the outcome was never going to be a sincere one. So the hope that there would be community consultation, the belief that there would be a political process, a democratic political process, especially around home and property rights, that’s one of our fundamental rights. It’s a key thing that someone has the right to be housed and homed. And that displacement will have − and has had − huge psychological, mental, physical repercussions on those it was forced upon. Many were overwhelmed and intimidated, and they left because of the threats of cutting services and loss of equity and ability to care for themselves in their old age. It was deeply traumatising.

Martin: It has taken a heavy toll on us in terms of trust. Sometimes we are very depressed about our situation.

Anne: I think it’s just a combination. It’s been a very hard year. Martin’s mum died, my parents are both in and out of hospital and unwell, our own health problems − there’s a multitude of things that are coming together that you’re dealing with normally, and then your resilience is eroded. And that was the case for us. And it’s fair to say that we’ve both been depressed. It’s just that grinding day-to-day getting through the days and the loss of wellbeing, the loss of joy of life, quality of life. It’s affected us in those ways.

Martin: Anne’s health condition has resulted in lots of migraines or sleeplessness, or other stresses that were a burden on us and our situation, and then this has come on top of it. 

Anne: I have lost faith in supposed political processes. Before the red zoning I had a belief that I lived in a society where we had rights, and that those rights would be legally upheld and dealt with in due process, and that they would be dealt with in consultation with those whose rights had been affected. I no longer have that faith. I would go so far as to say that I am afraid of how decisions are really made.

Martin: The red zoning was for us a very questionable thing, because at the end we found out that they didn’t want to reverse our zoning because it was inconvenient not to follow the street line and we were on the wrong side of the road. I don’t want to go zig zag was the official version. I have to follow the street line. And we thought, is that the only reason we are put through so much? 

And then we thought, oh we don’t get mail anymore? Because we are red zoned. So for a couple of days we struggled even getting mail because it was said that people in the red zone could not get mail because it was not feasible. And it was the funniest thing, because after a couple of days when we said we’ve got a perfect road next to the house so it’s no problem, we’re not in the middle of nowhere, and they said, yeah, you can have mail, you are an exception. 

And we had to fight to get our sewer connected because we lost the right to have a sewer through the red zoning. They put the new sewer out there through the street, dug it all up, it was just next to the old pipe, they connected all the other ones. And I said, we just need a plastic bit that’s 3 metres long to put in. It’s all dug up. And then you can connect us to the new sewer. And the response was, but you’re not going to be connected because you are red zoned. And I said, so if we stay, will you dig up the street afterwards with the new tar seal and put it in again if it has been established that we will be able to stay? All we need is a plastic pipe that long, and later on if the house really has to go you can cap it, it’s no problem and it doesn’t cost any more.

Anne: It’s symbolism. The houses across the road are worth $300,000 more.

Martin: We had one of the lowest damages in Christchurch, somebody told us − EQC [Earthquake Commission] value based on the amount of damage − and in the end we were told, for your own safety and for whatever, you have to get out of there. We did have liquefaction every time, two or three times, and we removed that, but otherwise we didn’t really feel more problems than on the other side of the road, which is green zoned. And that was always odd for us, and I felt punished by the fact that we didn’t exactly fit the model they had designed. 

And our situation was so odd that we were left with a very low rating value. It was $90,000 for the house and for the land it was $150,000. We were intimidated. We heard if you don’t take this voluntary offer then it’s going to be very hard for you − you might get an offer after that that’s even worse. We were feeling that we had to do something and had to find a home. So we looked on open days, but we couldn’t find anything we trusted given Anne’s health situation, so I always hoped that somebody would come and say, this is an odd case, we have to debate this. 

We tried to have a review of our red zoning, but it came to nothing. When the review answer came telling us you are still red zoned, you cannot rebuild your house where you are, we thought they must not have even looked at our case because we didn’t have to rebuild our house, so why do they tell us? So it was just a very general letter, nothing else. And the whole situation always looked odd to me, because we were in that L shape where we were on two sides surrounded by the green zone. For me personally it was the uncertainty of it all. What would happen? What would our property be worth? And then we got a new rating value which told us that our house and our property were now rated at $33,000 and we couldn’t do anything. Again you can ask for a review. We asked for a review, but it came to nothing again.

Anne: In no way could they explain the logic to us of why they devalued our house by $300,000 when they said it was land that they were talking about. Our house hasn’t changed at all.

Sense of powerlessness

Martin: We felt we were disowned on paper. Because they couldn’t kick us out of our property they had to disown us by the valuation of our property, and we felt that we couldn’t do anything about all these decisions that were made.

Anne: Always powerless.

Martin: This powerlessness to CERA’s red zoning, powerlessness to readdress the rating value, powerlessness when they wanted to take all the services away because we were red zoned. Why should we have water and power? Where was the Council? And then there was a powerlessness because they could not insure us anymore because we were red zoned.

All these were decisions made about us as a consequence of the red zoning. But how can you can be in a situation where the bureaucracy makes decisions you have no power to challenge? You try to but you feel not heard. All this sets off an avalanche of things, other problems kicking in. 

When you haven’t got the same rights as the people on the other side of the road. It must feel like that for women, for coloured people, for homosexuals, for everybody who just finds themselves on the other side and suddenly realises there’s this little discriminating thing, which they didn’t find a big thing, is becoming quite big. I think many people on this planet must feel that. We do learn from this injustice. I’m thinking of the refugees who have lost everything and who are just treated sometimes with suspicion and contempt and just don’t fit the model, and you hear, “You are not in our brief so we can’t do anything for you.” You don’t exist. People without a passport must feel the same. It can be very, very hard to feel discriminated against. I felt anonymity. 

Anne: Why was there no evidence for these claims? We were never given any evidence, we were never given any geotech data, we were never given anything. All these decisions were being made, and yet we were never once given, “This is the reason why…”

Martin: No information was shared.

Anne: It felt like a buyer and a seller. Normally the real estate agent is working on behalf of the seller, but it felt in this case that the agent was working on behalf of the buyer and keeping any information so that the buyer got a better deal. Each agency that came in was on the side of CCC [Christchurch City Council ], of CERA, it seemed to us. SCIRT [Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team] − all of them. There’s a big imbalance of power. 

Uncertainty

Martin: The zoning decision was rushed, and I think there has been a lot of collateral damage, because things should have been done with more consideration for the consequences. And just our situation: we are in the red zone, we have a very low rating value, we have no earthquake insurance, we are uncertain what that all means. We can renovate our house, but we could not build a new house if it would fall over in another earthquake and it wouldn’t be insured. So we don’t know what it all means and what all the red zoning around us will mean. Will it stay as it is as empty land, or will it be residential at one stage? We don’t know all these things.  

Have you seen today’s [4 November 2015] report in the newspaper? We’re like, “Oh no, here we go again, we’re back into this whole area of uncertainty”. CERA reassured us that we had primary ownership rights, so we’re like, phew. And then comes the Regeneration Bill and embedded within that Bill is they have the right under the Public Works Act to acquire our land. So we’re back into this zone of uncertainty. We have no idea if or when they will do it. So what do we do if we get any money from EQC? Can we do up our home − which really needs it − or do we need to hold onto that money because we might really need that money to shift if it’s forced? The stress is back again. And we don’t know … there’s no disclosure. There was the discussion in the newspaper today that the land could be used as an urban farm, public works, private developers, different sporting things. So this uncertainty: when will it stop?  

Anne: When can we get on with our lives?  

Sense of stigma around the ‘red zone’ label

Anne: Living in the red zone, it’s a stigma. A lot of people’s reaction to you is one of pity, and you have to change that around and say actually …

Martin: You kind of have to justify it. Those people might say, well the red zone, why is that? And I felt always I want to justify it. Sometimes we bear this stigma, and we first had pride and said no, we’re in the red zone, and it gives us a good start for talk, make the most of it. 

We’re red zoners. I mean, we’re called the red zoners. We have got a name, and partly we took it with pride and with a feeling of defiance. We are the red zone. And some people said, “What? We don’t understand what it means.” And some say, “Good on you.” So the reactions of people became important for us in a way too. We didn’t want to be red zoners. 

Anne: No-one wants to be red zoners.

Martin: But at one stage I thought, OK, I’m a red zoner now. 

Anne: You have to find a dignity in your situation in order to make peace with it. So you’re not so screwed up by it all the time, you have to claim it as a positive thing rather than it always being a negative thing. 

Martin: The stigma is this: you are considered to be somebody who wants more than they deserve. But I never wanted more than I deserved. I just wanted to be treated equally. 

Insurance

Anne: The insurance company, actually stripped our insurance for a whole year and we hadn’t even realised it. They hadn’t informed us.

Martin: We hadn’t noticed because we have this automatic system. At one stage they didn’t take any money for the last three quarters of a year and then we wanted to know, and they had just thrown us out. It was our policy, they said, that we don’t insure red zone land.

Anne: So we got back in contact with them and renegotiated insurance for car, fire, but we don’t have earthquake insurance. So we find ourselves with a house that we were told by EQC did very well, and the houses across the road, they had to demolish them, rebuild them, they were new homes, they were insured for earthquake, and we haven’t cost our insurance company anything, and yet they have withdrawn cover. 

Martin: This week we had another message, a change in our situation. We are now financially better off because we got a letter from EQC after the foundations were tested twice with engineer’s reports and we have gone over cap as a result.

Anne: They just wanted to put sand into the cracks, so I went and got two reports because I wasn’t happy with that, and the result of that is we have gone from $8,000 damage to being over cap.

Martin: So that means we can probably still stay here but we will have more means to repair what we have got. We don’t want to over-capitalise, because if the house is not worth anything or if the rating is so low and it’s not insurable then we don’t want to spend a huge amount of money, but we want to do the necessary repairs. And we will have the means for it now. So in a way there is a slight improvement in the situation because of the financial means that the over-cap settlement brings.

Anne: It’s a cash pay-out. EQC was very clear about that. So since the red zoning we’ve been living in a financial loss and now that’s changed. Phew!

Martin: Which is a huge burden off our shoulders. Anne and I, we have actually not fully understood it because we felt so burdened by the big financial loss through our decision to stay in the red zone. Even if we had moved we would have had a big financial loss. It seems this is now taken from our shoulders, but we still feel, after so many years of this worry, that we haven’t really grasped it yet. We haven’t felt liberated. It’s like the cage door has opened and we are still in the cage because our situation has been that way for years. 

This shock of being in such an odd situation and not listened to by anybody, and all these other anonymous decisions being made about us, that was very hard. It was hard for us and it was hard for me to go to school and think, “Oh I’m being robbed of my house while I am going to work. And now I have to work a couple of years longer to make up for that loss.” I didn’t like that thought. I felt pickpocketed. Just when you think you are enjoying yourself and are coming to a straight where we need a couple of years to retire. I thought I don’t want to work beyond those years just to have a bit of safety for old age. 

We will repair because we cannot rebuild. For two reasons: firstly we wouldn’t be allowed to rebuild here, and secondly we wouldn’t want to risk that with Anne’s health conditions.

Anne: There are still complications, because there are now the flood zone and coastal inundation, changes to the Building Code, which mean you have to build really high, and we’ve seen the foundation structures around us and down the street and the use of treated timber. We know nothing yet about how we can go about doing those repairs. 

Martin: It’s one of the next questions for us: can we move the house away, have the foundation re-done and put the house on it again?

Anne: But there are requirements about how that foundation must be. 

Martin: I had real doubts about what EQC was saying about our foundation, and then I went to RAS [Residential Advisory Service] and they said, “You’ve got an engineering issue not a legal issue here.” And so we got a professional to check the foundations and he was very thorough, and he immediately flicked off the plaster coating and it’s just a smashed rubble foundation, stones and bricks and whatever that was used for houses built in that era. So there would have been many who got the RV [rateable value] who had foundations like ours that were irreparable. And it took us that long to find out. 

EQC didn’t accept it, so we went and got a structural engineer company, who used the material of the first report and agreed with their findings and the measurements and that report was accepted by EQC. One of EQC’s scopes of works was partial repair, and they went back to epoxy, but the chemistry of that didn’t bind with the structure of the concrete. It’s just a filler. It’s not going to be a joiner. So that’s not going to repair the foundation at all. So I just thought, that’s not right. So I wanted more information around it and we decided we would invest.

Anne: We paid about $4,000 to get those inspections done. That’s always been part of what has been going on: those who have the resources and money and the wherewithal … 

Skills 

Anne: The skills I have, have been to no avail. You think, “During my life I acquired these skills, I’ve worked in certain ways, saw results in certain things but in this instance they were to avail.” And it’s like I put down my tools. They’re not working, they’re blunt. If they’re ineffective then you look at them and you go, “Well it’s not getting me anywhere, how do I move forward? How do I move on? How do I survive this? This hasn’t been of any use, it hasn’t brought forth anything good and in fact it’s been … They’ve been dismissed.” 

It’s like I said at the beginning: when I went to the computer and I looked at all the things, the appeals that they’d put forward, the things and energy that went into that, the thought, the discussions, the looking around and seeing everybody else … it seemed in vain. It was in vain. The process was just this juggernaut brutal process that was just pushing on, boom, boom, boom, and it was going to be the way it was going to be and that was decided. 

I know historically this has happened in other societies, dealing with crisis or dealing with huge change, but I thought that here we would have a community development model, that we would have consultation, and that you could use your ability to express yourself, to make suggestions, to put up your hand and be listened to. My skills were to no avail. So in time you lose confidence in yourself, and you also conserve the little energy that’s left just to do those day-by-day things. I have lost confidence. It’s like I’m unemployed and trying to get back into the workforce. It’s that kind of feeling. 

I would in the past have described myself as a good writer and researcher, and certainly I feel passionate about, that I’m good at going out and researching and getting information and finding the appropriate people with the knowledge that needs to be disseminated to those who need it. It’s my background, social research, community development and education. And in our situation I thought, if I’m going to help anyone else then I need to help ourselves first because we’re in a pickle. But nothing came of that and my mental state of health really declined. 

It’s an extraordinary experience to live through. It could be empowering if you were healthy and well and came out the other end and turned it around and got involved in working in that area and said, “OK, I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, and I’m going to turn this around and use this in such a way that I know what people need doing, and I know the kind of information they’ll be looking for, I know what we require of our politicians, and I know that these kind of actions are really going to help people recover, maintain the health they have, get the resources they need, all of these things because I know what I needed and it wasn’t there when I needed it”.

Class divide and vulnerable populations

Anne: [The Press] wrote a very good article not so long ago about EQC and the middle class. And it was glaringly obvious to us ...in that article: the middle class had the ability, they had the wherewithal, the knowledge, the education, the skills, the contacts, they had what was needed to take on the system, and they did. But what about those who didn’t have the education, skills, ability, the structural analysis, to go, hang on, what is being done to us is against our rights, it doesn’t meet with all these things that we as a New Zealand society have agreed on, that we will care for our society and abide by these rules. Those rules cover the vulnerable, and they cover the elderly, and they cover those who are lower socioeconomic and may not have the knowledge and the ability or the financial resources to take on the system. It just punched through them. What about the poor? 

You think about people who are in a terrible political situation, and you think, “What happens when they have to deal with the care for elderly and they have health conditions, disabilities, they have lack of access to medical resources and housing and all those things?”

Martin: We had to fight for each little thing. We would never have got that without help. We had Anne’s brother-in-law. He knew everybody. That’s what they say: it’s not what you know but who you know. He made it possible. That wasn’t a good experience either. You need to know and have all the connections. It didn’t feel right, because so many people haven’t got those connections.

Anne: Or you need somebody other than yourself to advocate on your behalf because you are in it, you are going through it, you are very bruised and battered by it all and you may not be available for whatever reason, so you need a strong advocate. And the Canterbury Earthquake Support Coordinators, that’s what I expected of them. One man was able to do that, but the other… That’s why in a future case scenario, you need a strong advocate if you’re in this position, somebody who knows what your rights are and can deal with all those agencies you will come into contact with regarding your home and property.

Martin: For us the over-cap assessment makes the burden lighter. Our life investments had been basically wiped away on paper, and now, even if we don’t rebuild here, we can put some of that money back into some savings for our old age. We might not get any money when we try to sell the house because people might say, “Oh if I can’t rebuild, if it burns down or something why should I pay some money for this?” So there is still this uncertainty, but now we might have something to balance that out, that risk or that uncertainty. 

The media

Martin: I wonder what the media could do to be better. We recently had the case of that family that are still in the red zone, and there was an article about them and these people were, of course, not very diplomatic. They were saying, oh I expect big money or something from the government. And the article basically set up these two people and stirred up a hornets’ nest, and there was online abuse going on, a tremendous amount. So I’m saying the media should reflect on their role − what they bring and how they bring it.

Anne: The media’s duties and the role they play are so vital, and to go out there and do this sensationalist, manipulative … I feel really angry about that.

Martin: I often felt angry about the media when they write what it costs just to keep people in the red zone. Well, these people didn’t choose to be red zoned, it was just that they were unlucky to be in an area when the government decided that it’s cheaper for us to let the whole place go and buy the people out. And I do understand that, but that wasn’t the people’s fault. 

Anne: Us and them. 

Martin: Again, divide another group. And that’s not necessary every time, because there are a lot of people who cost a lot of money and we can’t always raise a fire storm against them, against vulnerable people. Politicians were not exempt from that either. 

Martin: Conversely, John Campbell was our hero. John Campbell had a lot of compassion, and we were grieving when he was discontinued. We were comforted by how he showed what horrible situations some people were in, were in their cars after two and a half years after the quakes and so forth. And it was just the right approach: it was a healing approach, it was a caring approach, a compassionate approach, and it has done so much good. He became a hero. 

And another hero I want to mention is Mike Coleman. He had a lot of analysis that I didn’t have at the time, and I thought, at least somebody is organising some demonstration rallies. We went to them and we felt it was good to express our disagreement with what was happening. And even if it was only 200 to 300 people sometimes, or 400, I’m so grateful to the man that he named the injustices and he gave us a voice.

Anne: He was a voice. 

Martin: Because the politicians: for them it’s easy. They just snap their fingers and all the media come and push the microphones in their faces, and they just say something and it’s all over the nation. But if you want to put your position across, you need to get at least 300 people together and invite the media, and you may get about a minute on the news. So it is hard. Occasionally some things from the other side came through: not all people are greedy and holding out their hand for an extra handout. There was good stuff, good people.  

Anne: Everybody has got a perspective, every player involved in a situation has their angle and their side, and when somebody really powerful gets to say their side and can do it with their spin doctors in such a way that there’s no sympathy … you can imagine for us it was like, “That’s not fair! That’s not on!” If we speak together, have a discussion about it, great.

I think the media were quite polemic in terms of the way they portrayed the red zoning, and when they did that story of the couple … that was shocking. They need to be accountable too.  The cornerstone of good journalism is reporting both sides of the story in a fair manner and letting people’s words speak for themselves, and they have failed. 

Martin: My expectation of the media would be for them to show a TV discussion where everybody is around the table, and there are one or two people from the red zone, somebody from the government, CERA, that’s alright. Not to have to create a big rally to get very superficial attention by the media. The media could create a bit more balance of information from two or three sides. I think that’s a reasonable expectation.  

Anne: The red zone got story fatigue. It’s like the rest of the country got earthquake fatigue: we’re bored with this. And really, the red zone was like the least of the issues for those who survived.

The use of the word ‘suffering’

Anne: I feel we have suffered. Yes. Very much. In every way. There’s no doubt about it.

Martin: I’ve suffered from the fact that we were from the beginning in an odd situation because we were told by EQC that we had hardly any damage but CERA said, look you have been in one of the worst hit areas of Christchurch and we have to empty this area, nobody can live there anymore. So that was already, for me, a blatant contradiction. 

The importance of supportive individuals and agencies

Martin: If we hadn’t had support from Anne’s family and friends, who gave us advice or encouraged us or put a word in for us … And the Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights Commission has come and listened to us, which was already a huge thing − that somebody listens to you. The Human Rights Commission has been great for us because it gave us a human face, and that is important.

Anne: Very important. And sympathy. And non-judgemental. That’s what we’re looking for, just that agencies will be non-judgemental. And they were. We’re grateful for that.  

Martin: And then the Red Cross. Early on, there was a parcel out there I remember from the Red Cross.

Anne: It meant so much.

Martin: And some donations. It was such a lovely gesture. In that moment we felt we could cry every time. And then there was also one woman from CERA who was extraordinarily helpful to us, especially with Anne’s health condition.

Anne: She was great. All the land, red zoned land, has been fenced off with ground-treated wood, which is my arch nemesis − I go into meltdown just thinking about it, because it has such a horrible impact on my health − so I went to her and I said, “Is there any way when you do our block that you can use metal warratahs?” “Yes. Fine.” I said, “Do you want me to explain more?” and she said, “No, no.”

Martin: She was always very helpful. That was an extraordinary experience.

Anne: She was always so happy and kind and “Let’s make this work. “How can we make this work?”  This attitude was astonishing to me after all this time. 

Martin: And after this background of feeling like you have no power to meet people who actually care.

Anne: I could have hugged and kissed her.

Martin: It was amazing for me. I mean, I came to New Zealand 18 years ago and I got a job and I got training and everything worked beautifully for me, and then I got this experience and I just thought, what has happened now, what kind of society do I find myself in? And then I was reading up that book of great New Zealanders, and we have actually made a list of our great New Zealanders, because we needed to reaffirm to ourselves that this was still a good society. We have made a list of the people that we looked up to in this nation, this community and society. And we say, “Oh no, it’s not all wrong here!” We had to do it for our sanity otherwise we would have left. We needed that. There’s a little thing to keep you sane in an insane world. 

Anne: And how much a difference one person can make. 

Martin: One person makes a huge difference. It can give you your faith and trust back. It’s just enormous.  

The importance of community spaces and bringing people together – and an apology

Anne: Now we’re in a phase where we’ve lost places we can meet and be together, like the community events and community functions. We need to try to bring the community back together again.

Martin: Start with courses the government stopped funding. All kinds of evening classes. I think there should be money now for community building. So many have shifted, they need to get to know their neighbours, they need to find some purpose. You do a painting course or something and this could overcome trauma now.

Anne: And that all comes from the community itself rather than the Earthquake Support Coordinators and these outside people. Those aren’t real relationships. You don’t want to talk the emotional stuff. You want real connection and something where you’re actually doing something. The community garden concept is great, and it’s natural, and it’s evolving, and that’s how it should be.

Martin: It’s not just what wrong government decisions do to individual people or couples or families. That’s not the point. It has got a bigger aspect to it, because these people are members of society and they work. And if it distracts us so much from our work and takes energy away, then there will be more people suffering. So it is not only the immediately affected people who are suffering. It is the people these affected people deal with as well. I think my kids at school didn’t always get my full attention over the years because we were so absorbed in some of these issues, and I regret that.

It is not only an effect on us: that’s what I want to say. It has an effect on the wider society. If we treat people so that they feel disempowered and unjustly treated, then others are affected by the lack of attention, lack of energy, and they don’t get the full attention they deserve. So it has got a wider implications that need to be looked at. 

Anne: What’s best for the community as a whole.  

Martin: A thriving, flourishing community. That’s probably the goal. 

Anne: A connected one, too. 

Martin: And putting some plaques up for buildings that used to be there that say, “Here was the church in Dallington,” for example. Nothing shows that it was there, and it was such a centre for the community. And there was a school. I have said to some people in the church it is time to put a sign there, put a gravestone or a headstone onto that grave, and have a place to mourn for it. 

Anne: Just to remember. 

Martin: In every phase of trauma or recovery people need something different. The school’s not there − no sign, nothing. Just a little symbol could be there, a little book, or “Here was once the school from this year to that and lots of kids went through and learned to read and write.” Or the church: “Where many people got married or buried or the funeral or the baptism or many people met every Sunday and formed community.” Just a little symbol. This is necessary now. We’re in a phase of different needs. 

For me it’s a healing phase that needs to come now, because I always said we’re insured against the earthquakes, but we’re not insured against the government, their decisions, and that needs to heal. We have to do something, the regeneration and the reforestation of our trust in our community. 

Anne: And I wonder. No-one said sorry. 

Martin: Some people, like us, have been put through a lot, and most of it wasn’t necessary. 

Anne: That was it. The things that weren’t necessary, or that were harsh and heavy-handed, and just to say, “Yup, we mucked up there, we could do better there, and we will do better next time when it comes, wherever it comes.” In New Zealand we have learnt so much from this and it would be good for some people to hear.

Martin: The language needs to be honest. It was not reasonable, and that’s what Anne says, to say sorry for things that we put you through for nothing. There was no gain for them. 

The importance of appreciating the good things 

Martin: This Student Volunteer Army − what they did. They went in and did meaningful work and they could overcome trauma by doing something as a group. 

I remember I said it in the school assembly one day, “I have a need for beauty,” and I didn’t find it at that time when the earthquake had hit and every road was destroyed. It just looked so shabby, the whole place. So I showed the students some artwork, and many people came, even a month later, and said, “Yes, I’ve got the need for beauty too.” Gap Filler’s in there. It was like a little healing of a wound. We had a lot of broken things and trauma and I had a great need for crying at that time.  

I remember one day the school had some money and they sent us to Hanmer. My colleagues said, “You go to Hanmer for a weekend, here is money for the hotel or for accommodation and for the pool.” And so we could go there, and we were crying. There is a need for a place where you can cry, where community can come together. All this is not in the law, it cannot be done by government, but it is essential in my eyes.

I was like you, Anne, I had no initiative anymore. I was tired. I’d just go to work and do the necessary things, but I wished I could … You realise how much you can still function on the outside but the passion kind of goes a little bit and the initiative flees. 

Some people just think they have to hang in there. They have a great sense of loyalty and duty to their task, and they disregard what’s in their mind to a certain point. But at one stage there comes a point when these people have the right to grieve and to really overcome their trauma, to do something for themselves. So I think a big part is on the legal government level, but a big part is on us, in the community. That needs to happen. It’s something no government can enforce, but they can make it possible. And then humanity is asked for, and generosity. If somebody is not functioning, if a student cannot write an exam. In that way we have learnt a lot in that quake, in that crisis: how to make buildings more stable and, if the next quake comes, how to respond in a better way. 

Ongoing need for support services

Martin: Support services should be kept up. It should not be decided by somebody who has got their hand on the money. It should be decided by the people who are doing those support services and who can say, this has decreased, we can maybe ease off this one. The decision should always be made as closely as possible to the affected people, because they are the experts. That’s what we said before: people need to be heard. Even if your legal or financial situation is repaired, you still have trauma. This takes longer, so maybe the services, the money, need to go there.

Anne: I would strongly advocate that there remain support services for children, young children in schools who are exhibiting behaviours as a result of the strain their families have gone through over time during the earthquakes. We’ve seen reports of that, and education people talking about behaviours that are being played out in schools. These children have been very vulnerable and affected, and that needs to be channelled into schools. I would hate to see these support services switched off, because exhaustion is there. It’s like you’ve been running for a long time on empty.

Martin: There is an odd situation here. If you had the height of your trauma two years after the earthquake you’d be totally well supported, because that’s what everybody expects. That always happens. We see it at school: a child goes through puberty at the given time and everybody says, “Oh yeah, the difficult age”. But if somebody comes a few years later and the others are already settled down, they stick out like a sore thumb and they don’t get the support and they don’t get the understanding anymore: “They should be over it.” And it’s a similar situation here: there are some people whose trauma only comes out now. 

In the education area, during the first years it was amazing, it was beautiful. They said, people in Christchurch can take the practice exams and the end-of-year exam, and give them the best mark because they didn’t have so many school days, they were traumatised, they lost their home. At that time there was general agreement that everybody had a need, and we all agreed that these people needed to be helped. But now, if we say, “OK, everybody should be over it, time is up! Time is up for grieving now, we go back to normal.”  That could actually be another injustice for some people who really now need support − more than they needed it two years ago. You have to be very sensitive about what is needed and not just stop funding because it should be over, because somebody decides that.

Anne: I feel really strongly that to stop the funding would be a mistake. There needs to be somewhere people can go. 

Learning: the importance of flexibility and adopting a personalised approach 

Martin: One of the main things is, there are things in the too-hard basket, but don’t walk away from the people. Stop, take the people seriously, go there and say, “What can we do to solve this crisis? What would you wish? What do the engineers say? What do the legal people say?” Really tackle a critical, difficult situation, not walk away from it, leave people alone. It’s the same in my work in education: you don’t leave people alone when they have a problem. I think it’s the worst thing to do, to make things taboo and overlook them. Tackle them.

Anne: [It’s bad to have a] top-down, heavy process of, “This is what you must do and we’re not going to tell you why.”

Martin: Explanation. People deserve an explanation.

Anne: If people aren’t moving, there’s a good reason for it. Why can’t you move? What is the problem? Can we resolve this problem in any way? And if we can’t, maybe you need more time? Our Earthquake Support Coordinator was just like that. He’d find somewhere, he’d find somewhere else, and he was trying so hard, but with the difficulties I faced, it was, “How can we work with you?” 

RAS appointed another Earthquake Support Coordinator, who was very helpful and proactive and really resourceful. Unfortunately he changed jobs, and I just broke down and cried because I had this person who had my back. It was like, what do you reckon about this and do you know any information about that, and he had some engineering background. I didn’t want to get into namby pamby emotional stuff. I just didn’t want to go there. I was shut down there. 

Then I got the replacement, and the replacement was a very nice person, but she wanted to talk, and I was like, “I’m information gathering. I just want to cut to the chase here. I’m not into establishing a rapport or anything. I don’t need that. I haven’t got the energy for that. I trust you. Trust me. Let’s just get on and share information because we just need to move on from here.” 

So some people, we were really grateful for the help they gave us. It was what we needed: it was hands-on, practical, and it was informative, and things changed as a result of their interaction with us and we were very, very grateful. They stand out. 

Martin: When problems in conflict situations need to be resolved, I think there needs to be a huge amount of empathy, creativity…

Anne: Compassion.

Martin: Compassion … Well, imagination, really. How can we get through this? And generosity. You know, if it takes another half year to say farewell to your house, especially for elderly people. So I think imagination and creativity and empathy and generosity would be a good approach when people are in a crisis, or when conflict situations arise, because they would de-escalate the situation and not push people over the edge. 

Learning: timeframe

Martin: What can be learned is this. Some things need to be rushed − if there are people in danger you can’t have a meeting and discuss everything − but some things were rushed that shouldn’t have been rushed. And in this case, here in the flat zone, nobody’s life was at stake. There were houses that couldn’t be lived in, but some of the decisions could have taken a year longer. In hindsight we could say nobody’s life was depending on that. So you could have avoided a lot of heartache and heartbreak and hurt and powerlessness if there had been a little bit more time for these cases. 

It’s a grieving process when you have to deal with a situation like the red zoning. It sounds a bit odd, but you are grieving for a loss: you lose your home, you lose your neighbourhood, community, the church has gone. And so there must be some permission to grieve, some permission to go back and deal with the situation at your own speed, in your timeframe.

Anne: What you are talking about is choice. To have some choices − within reason. 

Martin: The law alone cannot solve human problems. It can give a boundary, a safeguard, but laws alone don’t create a liveable and good society. It requires a lot of volunteers and good will, and people with competency and professionalism and people skills to deal with those situations. 

The Chief Commissioner, David Rutherford, said they learnt from Hurricane Katrina that you need to treat people under trauma situation like your family members. And when I think back to our school, it was a very special time because the students and parents and teachers after the earthquake were seeing each other as vulnerable and showing their vulnerability. They created a new environment, a better environment with each other rather than against each other. 

In all these years we had way fewer bullying problems. You would expect more because everyone was under pressure, and you say, “Be easy on each other, be kind to each other because everybody is fighting their own battle and you don’t know what battle they are fighting.” This is especially true in such a situation. We should be easy on each other and treat each other with more respect and more reverence and more empathy than usual. Because it’s not just justice and regulations that need to be at their best in that time, but also our human side needs to come out. Hopefully I’m not like a bulldozer when I feel that people are under stress, because that would be something that I’d like to learn from this and say, be careful if people are grieving.

Suggestions

Martin: There need to be structural changes. One of the things that has come up is: if you have got a big house you are very quickly over the $100,000 over-cap limit, so do we disadvantage people because their house is not worth much? Maybe the cap needs to be set in relationship to the size of the house. If the limit is $100,000 for every house then of course it is harder in Dallington than in Fendalton to get over cap. These people with small houses also pay the earthquake contribution, not just the ones who have $2 million palaces, and I think something must be changed. I hope it will be. 

Parliament has to discuss some of the things that went wrong and restructure and make it more fair. Probably the insurance companies wouldn’t earthquake insure us if it wasn’t arranged that the State takes the first $100,000 so it needs to be looked at in terms of it’s a fixed sum, the $100,000. Maybe it needs to be put into a relationship of the size of the house: If it’s 90m2 it could be, well, $90,000, and if it’s 150m2 it could be $150,000 so they could be making it more equal. People with small houses also pay the earthquake contribution, not just the ones who have $2 million palaces, and I think something must be changed.

The other thing is that we share our experience and our emotions, our feelings. Because we are in a society of only 4.5 million people, I think this is a great thing about New Zealand, that we can reflect on the value of each and every one’s experience.  

Anne: We are capable of it. This is what we pride ourselves on. We’re progressive and caring.

Martin: There’s another side to it. It’s not only the government and the media. We all have to respect human rights. Some people said, “All these moaners in Christchurch with the earthquake and we have to all pay for it.” That didn’t help. I was pleased when somebody showed us compassion and said, yes we have gone through a lot. When somebody goes through a crisis it doesn’t help to tell them off. You want to say, “If you were in our situation you probably would feel just like us.” That’s half of the thing with human rights, isn’t it? If we can put ourselves into the shoes of somebody else?

Anne: It’s not until you experience what the other one is experiencing that you can really empathise. It’s not until you have cancer yourself that you understand what a cancer sufferer is going through, with that fear of the future and uncertainty of the disease. Connect people together for psychological and mental and emotional wellbeing. There has never been an opportunity for red zoners to come together and meet and say, “How are you, how are you getting on?” And “What are you finding?” and “We’re finding this.” That would be such a help. There was Earthquake Support Coordinators… pfft. There were all these other things but really, it’s the people who are in the same situation as well (Anne).

Martin: But we have had a lot of people who sympathised with us, who showed compassion and interest and said, “How is it going with you, what situation are you in?” The thing is, at the beginning, after the earthquake, we were all equal, everybody was in a difficult situation. But after a certain time we felt left behind and others moved on, and we were still in a crisis situation. 

Anne: One other thing that is really important is connecting people for their psychological and mental and emotional wellbeing. There has never been an opportunity for red zoners to come together and meet and say, “How are you, how are you getting on? And what are you finding and we’re finding this.” That would be such a help. There were Earthquake Support Coordinators … pfft. There were all these other things, but really it’s the people who are in the same situation. You go to an AA meeting with addicts, other addicts are going to be your support person, they’re going to help you through it. And I am mentally and emotionally worn out from this. I get comfort from speaking with other people who have been through it.

Unanswered questions

Martin: The uncertainty that we have still, that’s a big one, and there is nobody who can clearly answer it. There’s nobody who has got the authority to say, no in this case it is so and so and you can count on this. I felt often, why didn’t they talk to us? ... I always envisaged that somebody from EQC, somebody from CERA maybe, would come and say, “You’re a strange case here: On one hand it says you have hardly any damage in the house and on the other hand we say that you are on very bad land and everything must be very bad. How can we solve this?” 

Anne: Especially when there weren’t that many. The numbers became feasible for them to do that.  When the numbers got to a stage where they could see who was left behind, and they were generally people with problems and difficulties.

Martin: It should have been possible to talk to maybe 100 people who were left in the red zone to find a solution, because otherwise we feel like outcasts, like we’ve done something wrong, and that was not a good feeling. It doesn’t have to be individually. I wish there was a public acknowledgement where the government says, “There was an earthquake, it was a difficult situation, we were overwhelmed, we made some mistakes, we hurt some people, we caused undue stress on some and we want to acknowledge that somehow as a human gesture.” It made me feel, where are the people who should represent the whole nation? Not just politically. The ones who are the figureheads. Are they not saying something? Don’t they care about their citizens? 

That’s what I would have welcomed. If somebody could have said not just that the earthquakes have been hard but that some of the mismanagement, or maybe the wrong approach that government agencies took, has caused undue stress on people and this needs to be acknowledged. I’m still hopeful it will come at some stage.

Anne: ‘Undue stress’ doesn’t describe the extent of anguish and hardship and mental strain on our personal health, on our relationship, on our ability to work and function and earn an income, the worries, the anxiety … Psychologically it was just so ongoing … it is ongoing, actually, with this change to this new Bill [The Regeneration Bill], it is ongoing and I’d quite like to crack, actually.  

Martin: We have this Kafka situation. Franz Kafka wrote about this absurd situation of an individual being caught up in an anonymous bureaucracy who feels entirely powerless. And I often felt this Kafka situation. I thought this was the best description for the whole situation. 

Anne: Our side of the story has never been told, has never been dealt with in any documentary made on the earthquakes, in any film on the city.

Martin: It was under the radar, these things that highlighted the situation from the people’s point of view, and the feeling of powerlessness is not a nice one. We’ve learnt a lot, and hopefully I never do that to my students − just kind of ignore them or brush off their concerns, because it feels bad. You’re very powerful as a teacher, but when I make a mistake I usually say I’m sorry. I wish I had that from our government, because I hold it in high regard. I think it is actually doing things quite well, and this was my expectation in this case. 

Anne: It was shocking to us that it went in the opposite direction of our expectations of how we do things in New Zealand. We were really shocked. We couldn’t believe what was happening to us. We’re in that unknown situation, so the sooner they make it clear to us then we’d be really grateful. I think the key things would be:

  1. the City Council will continue to provide services as we continue to pay our rates 
  2. explain why they devalued our house by $300,000 when they said it was land they were talking about, but our house hasn’t changed at all.

That really worries us, too. If they acquire our land and they have devalued it so much. You start to see conspiracies. 

Martin: Why do people say that, and how do they come to that conclusion, and why can’t you readdress that, and why is nobody able to do anything about it? 

Update: Where Anne and Martin are now (August 2016)

Anne and Martin still live in their house in the Residential Red Zone. They are pleased to be close to Anne’s elderly parents and assist them daily. Following several engineer's reports, their earthquake damages went "over cap" in 2015. They have received an EQC and Insurance payout (cash settlement), but have not started with repairs while the future of their property is uncertain.