I was going to write this piece yesterday when my feeling of unease was edging into the realm of anger, but this morning I read a report in the paper that the matter in question is being “looked at” so there may be hope yet, at least for those Christchurch people who have not already been violated.
I’m referring to the plight being experienced by many small business owners whose premises are in the no-go area of Christchurch and who are seeing their buildings being demolished without warning and without the opportunity of first retrieving items of value, even when that could have been done quite safely.
The results of Christchurch’s Feb 22 earthquake are sad enough, with the loss of lives affecting thousands who knew non-survivors and the destruction of many tens of thousands of much-loved family homes. We don’t need to cause any extra significant pain and hardship to people than we need to.
I have several connected points to make here, so bear with me if this gets a bit rambly.
First, I have great sympathy for people who’ve lost (or expect to lose) their businesses as a result of the quake. Now I know that we can always say that our priorities must be right, that at least they’re alive and have their friends and family around them. But life can and should mean more than that, and to say that other things such as businesses built up over years of hard work are less important, and can be dispensed with in the name of “safety first” and obeying the law, is too short-sighted for me.
What many Christchurch people, in particular those involved in the vital small business sector or living in the CBD, are experiencing now shows precisely the downside of having a national state of emergency in place. Sure, a state of emergency does mean that skilled organisations and teams can be mobilised to tackle the immediate disaster situation, but the downside is that you get an unaccountable group in control which can over-reach itself and trump common sense in the name of a risk-averse “safety first” principle mixed with a “we’re in control here” attitude.
I’m sure that the Civil Defence and Search and Rescue people, as individuals, have done a unenviable and valuable job in bravely attacking the immediate problems and reducing obvious dangers. But it’s entirely likely that this new-found sense of importance, particularly by Civil Defence heads (as seen on recent TV interviews), may be skewing their vision. For so many years CD have been ignored or quietly laughed at with their warnings that we should be ready for some “big disastrous event” (yeah, right), and now they’ve been proved right! And with a state of emergency in place allowing them to be answerable to no-one, they’re making sure that everyone knows who’s boss and why they should have been taken more seriously.
This may sound very harsh, given the brave work that is being done on the ground. But when I hear and read the fast-growing number of cases where CD and the forces that answer to them (army, police etc) are simply not giving any thought to the plight of business owners who just need to get valuable material from their premises before those buildings are knocked down. The stories being told show an inflexible cold heartedness that angers me and makes me fear that the rebuilding of the morale of Christchurch businesses will take longer than officials believe.
CD is justifying not allowing business owners access on the grounds that “safety is paramount”. Well I believe that it’s not paramount. Happiness and human spirit and meaningful life is paramount, and people need to be able to live with an informed level of risk, now and always. That’s what life is about. You can never make it entirely safe.
The second disappointing aspect of the management of people’s livelihoods in Christchurch is the lack of effort in matching up knowns with unknowns, in the name of getting the demolition job over as soon as possible. Again, many stories emerge of owners of buildings, businesses, cars and other property not being informed before demolition occurs. Officials say they do their best to find out who owns what. Police asked owners of cars caught up in the no-go areas to register their names so they can be given back their cars. In both cases, all that information is in fact easily known and if it cannot be accessed quickly by authorities then there is something seriously wrong with their IT systems.
Ownership of all these things are on basic computers – the core databases of councils, business organisations, Inland Revenue and car registration. There can be simply no excuse for dealing to property before owners are contacted. If it takes another day to wait for a message left on an answer phone to be responded to, then so be it – one day’s delay in demolishing a building is far better than destroying expensive assets and future businesses prospects just because a demolition crew is ready and waiting to make money out of another quick and easy job, and officials are too bothered to reschedule.
The rush to knock it all down seems too desperate – or is it that CD, which is supposed to be responsible for all decisions on what stays and goes, wants to make as much impact as it can before the state of emergency is lifted?
To say that demolition firms acting without authority can be reprimanded and fined is an insult to the people whose livelihood is suddenly lost on a whim, and whose outlook on life may be negatively shaped for the rest of their life.
It’s fair for CD and Search and Rescue to want to minimise the chance of people entering the zone being hit by falling bricks etc, but if just a bit of time and care could be taken to ensure owners, accompanied by SAR experts, could recover accessible vital assets before demolition, then such risks would pay off in the longer term in the rebuilding process.
I read of a dentist who reportedly was required to access (accompanied) his damaged CBD surgery to get dental records for body identification purposes, but has since been denied access to retrieve assets. If true, that is simple perverse and daft.
Be safe, yes, but don’t use that as pretext for keeping people from living in a risky world. The people prepared to take managed and informed risks to enable them to start rebuilding their businesses by retrieving business assets are the people we need to start rebuilding Christchurch. Don’t drive them away through risk-averse officialdom.
Providing a glimmer of hope, this morning’s paper said that as a result of the growing anger among business owners, Civil Defence is pausing for a few days in its headlong demolition programme to see if it can put find better ways of working with businesses in a cooperative manner. Fingers crossed they may come to their senses and see the bigger picture.