Fatigue and despair from trauma of Cyclone Gabrielle will soon set in for victims

6:31 pm on 27 February 2023
The clean-up continues in Wairoa on 21 February following Cyclone Gabrielle.

The clean-up continues in Wairoa following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

By Ann Skelton*

Opinion - The devastation to property and the trauma suffered by people at the hands of Cyclone Gabrielle is hard to comprehend from afar.

As a Cantabrian who lived through the earthquakes a decade ago, as well as a professional mediator, I can relate in some way to what those affected by Gabrielle have gone through - and, alas, may yet still have in store.

Somehow, I know from our experience, communities find the energy in the initial emergency response phase to carry on. But fatigue and despair can set in.

The wait for assessments by local authorities to see if your home and land is inhabitable can seem like an eternity. The idea that your future now depends on someone else's judgement can be hard to accept.

Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle.

Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

Then the recovery phase begins: assessments by insurance claims assessors, geotechnical and structural engineers, builders. It can feel like an endless fight to reclaim what until only days before felt like a normal life.

But in the wake of the Canterbury experience, there are grounds for optimism. A public inquiry into the EQC in the wake of that disaster resulted in a number of positive changes.

The Natural Hazards Insurance Bill, which is intended to replace the existing Earthquake Commission Act, aims to simplify the claims process and to provide an agency to help sort out residential insurance issues, which is already now operating as the New Zealand Claims Resolution Service (NZCRS).

The establishment of this service has been welcome news. People experience the insurance claims process differently - some positively, others with confusion and frustration. And those emotions can in turn affect how any available claims progress.

Lessons have been learnt from the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. These indeed may make the insurance claim part of the current disaster recovery more straightforward.

Leaving assessment solely to insurers, rather than the dual EQC/insurer model in place at the time of the Canterbury disaster, proved to be more efficient when the disasters at Kaikōura (earthquake) and the West Coast (flooding) followed. But the sheer number of claims in the current chaos means getting through this system is going to be slow, even if there are no disputes.

Produce - including apples, onions, pumpkin and pineapple - rotting at Napier Beach's shore on 20 February, 2023.

Produce - including apples, onions, pumpkin and pineapple - rotting at Napier Beach's shore. Photo: RNZ / Soumya Bhamidipati

But where there are disputes, that process may seem glacial.

The new NZCRS is timely. While there's no obligation to use it, it's free to access if people need some assistance. It provides a wealth of knowledge and experience to assist homeowners through the insurance process for residential claims.

Of course, this is only one option available to help people in progressing and resolving claims.

For those with thorny claims that can't be brought to an easy conclusion, there are other processes available.

Mediation was used successfully for many claims in Canterbury, usually after protracted disputes with the involvement of lawyers and advocates, with evidence from engineers and other experts.

Taking up a mediation or another dispute resolution process at an earlier stage might have reduced the pain of having to relive the disaster through the claims dispute processes.

Pictures of Joll Road, Havelock North. The town was largely spared from the cyclone but a small pocket wasn't so lucky. This street backs on to the Mangarau Stream, and was ravaged. A stark contrast to the manicured lawns and neatly trimmed hedges on neighbouring streets.

Joll Road in Havelock North was smashed by the cyclone. Photo: RNZ / Lauren Crimp

While residential insurance disputes accounts for a lot of issues requiring resolution, Gabrielle has caused damage that will be outside the ambit of the NZCRS.

Which is another reason why mediators could be a lifeline for some.

Among the additional matters will be commercial lease and tenancy disputes, breach or frustration of contract issues, business interruption disputes, community or iwi concerns with forestry, family issues.

All matters that lend themselves to being resolved as quickly and respectfully as possible for the sake of all involved.

Taking such disputes through the courts can be expensive and protracted when people are looking to settle matters and move on with their lives.

Mediation, along with facilitation, adjudication and arbitration, is a dispute resolution process outside the court system available to people who find themselves at loggerheads. It is, as one practitioner puts it, "an opportunity for each side to present their case and for us to get back to the table again".

And it's less costly, usually a lot faster and carries a lot less stress.

Legal advisors can assist in choosing the right fit. So can the Arbitrators' and Mediators' Institute of New Zealand, or AMINZ, which has a wealth of expertise to tap into, including lists of members who can provide the specific skills necessary for resolving a variety of disputes.

If the Canterbury experience is anything to go by, getting disputes resolved early, using qualified and professional people, will assist with the process of rebuilding affected communities. And helping ease the heartaches and headaches that so many people might otherwise be looking at right now.

*Ann Skelton is a Christchurch barrister and mediator from Mediation Partners. She has acted for both homeowners and insurers, and provided mediation for a variety of related disputes.

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