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NZealand's slow quake recovery shows rich struggle

Thursday - 2/21/2013, 4:41am  ET

In this Jan. 22, 2013 photo, an excavator climbs the rubble of demolished buildings in downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. The city’s population has declined by 13,500, or 3.6 percent, from the 380,000 people it had before the magnitude 6.3 earthquake. Some have left by choice; others because they had nowhere left to live. (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)

Associated Press

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) -- Two years after an earthquake devastated New Zealand's second largest city, killing 185 and rattling Phil Thompson's suburban house off its foundations, the 65-year-old retiree still lives in a cramped trailer home parked on the incongruously neat lawn in front of his twisted wooden bungalow.

Thompson, along with virtually everyone else in Christchurch, had thought the city would be closer to recovery by now. Instead he and his partner are resigned to spending a third southern hemisphere winter in the poorly insulated camper, venturing into the sagging house to use the toilet. Downtown, a temporary shopping center in brightly colored shipping containers has become a symbol of resilience, but most of the historic center remains a post-apocalyptic ghost town. "Beyond The Cordon" bus tours take sightseers behind chain-link security fences to see the ruins of the Feb. 22, 2011, quake.

Christchurch is but one example of how even the wealthiest countries struggle to recover from large-scale catastrophes. In some cases, developing countries may be better off. Within two years of a 2004 tsunami, half the 100,000 permanent homes needed in Indonesia had been completed, and almost 700 schools had been built or repaired. But in Japan, nearly two years after the March 2011 tsunami flattened the northeast coast, few homes have been rebuilt.

"Many people in developing countries don't rely much on governments, and even after a disaster, they just go ahead and do it," said Peter McCawley, an economist at the Australian National University and a specialist on disaster relief policy. "They often do it to low standards, but they just go ahead and fix it anyway."

Conversely, disaster agencies in the wealthiest countries have become "far too bureaucratic and tied up in rules," he said from Jakarta, where he is on leave to work on an aid project.

A major bottleneck in Christchurch is insurance. Most claims haven't been paid, as insurance companies and a government insurance fund that covers damage up to 100,000 New Zealand dollars ($85,000) tussle over who should pay for what. Continuing aftershocks -- topping 11,000 last month -- have added to the delays, as insurers wait for the ground to become more stable.

"It would have been totally irresponsible to have set about rebuilding somebody's house ... whilst the ground is shaking, only to have it severely damaged again or destroyed by the next quake that comes along," said Tim Grafton, chief executive of the New Zealand Insurance Council, an industry group.

Insurers have only been able to contemplate starting major repair work in the past six months, he said. Some had reimbursed homeowners for repairs after a September 2010 earthquake, only to see the same homes flattened five months later by the February quake, which left 14,000 homes either destroyed or condemned.

"A lot of my constituents are looking to me and saying, 'Well gosh, we've been told by our insurer that we're not even going to really know what's going to happen for us until 2015,' " said Lianne Dalziel, an opposition lawmaker who represents Christchurch's ravaged eastern suburbs. "This is psychologically debilitating."

Thompson wasn't insured, which he has come to regard as a blessing as others battle for payouts.

His problems started after his neighborhood was rezoned "orange," and then "Technical Category 3," the least stable outside the now off-limits red zones. He hasn't been able to lay a new foundation, he said, because the national government keeps changing the requirements for soil testing and foundation design in his zone.

"We're still waiting, waiting, waiting for bureaucracy to come out with what they're going to need. They keep changing their mind and that's what I'm stuck with," he said outside his 69-year-old home, now perched precariously on wooden blocks. "Looks like another winter in the caravan again."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said in a statement that its guidance document for repairing and rebuilding houses had "fundamentally remained the same," although it has been "updated, clarified and made more accessible."

Thompson and his partner Debra Savage rely on a garden tap for drinking and cooking water. They drive 9 kilometers (6 miles) three times a week to shower at a friend's home. The electricity remains disconnected because of fire and electrocution risks from damaged wiring. He still pays full property tax on the house, and a city official challenged him for having an unapproved shipping container on the property to store salvaged belongings. The official later relented, accepting that it could be classified as a temporary fixture because of emergency circumstances.

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