Christchurch quake engineers told it will get easier

9:14 pm on 26 April 2013

Earthquake engineers working on the rebuild of Christchurch have been told they are in the most painful part, two years on from the devastating tremor of February 2011.

An architecture professor from the United States told a conference of earthquake engineers in Wellington on Friday that everyone is frustrated and exhausted - but it will be different in a year's time.

Professor Mary Comario, from the University of California at Berkeley, travels the world looking at how countries struck by devastating natural disasters recover.

She told the New Zealand Society of Earthquake Engineers that international experience shows they are going through the hardest part of the recovery right now.

"There's been so much paperwork going on - evaluations, building reviews, negotiations with insurance. In about three years, you start to see real projects coming out of the ground."

Professor Comario says hopes will rise when more buildings start to go up in about a year. However, the rebuild's planning is the most important part - and New Zealand is doing that well.

"I'm finding that there's a lot of good planning work being done here, both at the government level, at the community level. I think there's a fair amount of input from local constituencies, I think that's enormously important, but those things take time."

Structural Engineering Society president John Hare is seeing a lot of frustration in Christchurch.

"A lot of that frustration comes down to just not understanding what it is that's causing the hold-ups, why things have to go slowly - not appreciating that something of this scale and magnitude can't be dealt with overnight."

Mr Hare says engineers, along with everyone working on the rebuild, need to target the top priorities rather than just doing the job step by step.

Professor Camario says the creation in Christchurch of zones indicating how the land is expected to perform in future quakes is an amazing piece of geotechnical work - and a valuable lesson internationally about how and where to rebuild a city

However, she points out that 80% of the rebuild is being paid by insurance, compared with 25% after a big earthquake in Chile in 2010 and 16% following the devastating Japanese quake in March 2011, and questions if insurance is helping or hindering the work.

"Has it forced owners to sort of take the easy route in terms of compensation and not think about the impact on the larger community. I think you will never see the same kind of insurance scheme as you've had in the past."

Professor Camario says New Zealand is coping remarkably well, but could learn lessons from Chile about town planning and hazards planning.