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Disasters Occur in a Political Space: Disaster Recovery in an Earthquake Damaged City

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Although there are those who would disagree, disaster recovery is probably not driven by politics, but nor is it immune from politics. Far from it. The actions taken by human actors undoubtedly affect the prevention, mitigation, and damage of natural disasters and their aftermath.

The ‘shock’ refers to the natural act itself e.g. the earthquake. The ‘aftershock’ comes later. Post-earthquake 2010-2012 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Earthquake Commission, the Canterbury Earthquake Authority, the Christchurch City Council, and the Government of the day equate to the net impact of the ‘aftershock’ on the population – the physical ‘disaster’ is far from the whole event. It is also made up of those shocking post-disaster events, such as delayed insurance payouts, top-down authoritarian decisions, ineptitude of professional bodies, evidence of corruption in the post-quake city – and the list goes on…

Though governments are supposed to care about the social welfare of their citizens during disaster recovery, they also have an interest in maximizing government income and though governments do spend on both preventative and palliative measures to lessen the impact of a potential natural shock, they also use natural disasters to redistribute power through the political effect, for example favouring disaster spending in regions that are politically aligned with the party in power. Dire circumstances provide rapacious governments with a stronger ability to increase their level of theft and to hide it. Disasters can be used as a blunt policy instrument to target or reward populations and to enrich a government and the ‘corporate classes’.

Interesting too, is the fact that a time of crisis during disaster recovery can increase markedly the amount of information a population has about current or incumbent politicians and their governance style and outcomes. This is because disaster produces a highly informative environment where voters are continually debating and experiencing the performance and merits of the operators in power – be that a Prime Minister or a City Council. It is in these high information environments that voters learn enough to enable them to consider taking the decision to replace the political incumbents.

Educated voters are fully rational, and research shows that re-election rates are lower for incumbents following natural disasters. The mechanism is informational. A rational voter votes retrospectively – i.e. based on what they perceive to be the past performance of the incumbent-but does so only because that past performance is informative about expected future performance.

Confidence in a country’s disaster recovery preparedness depends on confidence in the ability and willingness of its government to mandate and oversee levels of decency and fairness in addition to the efficiency of reconstruction. The dilemmas that Christchurch City faces require constant balancing between rebuilding faster, rebuilding cheaper, rebuilding safer, and rebuilding back better. In order to achieve the right ends there will be a need for the government to deal with many of the elements of local and private enterprises who have been and still are placing profits ahead of community interests – including having the all-important conversations with insurance providers and addressing their stalling of claims settlement and the dubious processes employed to minimize the cost of valid claims. All these are examples of potential failures of central government to assume responsibility and control of regulation and enforcement in the long-term planning process, which is arguably motivated by an entrenched culture of corporatism which favors corrupt dealings and the pursuit of occluded agendas. Markets have no inherent moral character therefore it is government’s role to decide how to manage them.

Declaring a disaster a ‘national emergency’ has profound political implications. In the follow-on from managing the emergency and the rescue efforts it is practically unavoidable that a further politicisation of the event increases as the affected community moves from the emergency response through to the recovery and the reconstruction phases. The immediate emergency response by any government is fairly predictable, as it should be, but, from a political point of view, the aftermath has proven to be uncharted territory, highly susceptible to the opportunities of the circumstances and the political values and agendas of the day. The way a Government perceives its political mandate, or is given opportunity to define it, is never more critical than in a recovery phase.

Markets have no inherent moral character and it is therefore arguable that it is the government’s role to decide how to manage them. In particular, after a major disaster markets must be regulated ‘under emergency’ to ensure that they are working for the benefit of the recovery of the majority of citizens. A political system of non-interference only serves to amplify the voice of wealthy corporates and fails to protect the ordinary citizen against corporate abuse. Money speaks in politics as it does in the market place. Any system of recovery must have rules and regulations operating within a legal framework. In a modern economy, the government has the responsibility on behalf of its population to set and enforce the rules of the game in the market place. This is especially true in the case of a major disaster where government takes the decision to be involved in the recovery process. In the absence of genuine government support, the extent to which a population can recover post-disaster is likely to be severely challenged. What has characterized the recovery in Christchurch is that political decision making has been in favour of the corporate and government stakeholders – the insurance industry and the construction industry. The policy of non-interference in the marketplace has been the cause of slow, painful recovery. The consequences of this approach have been sorely and visibly felt by the affected population.

The Insurance Aftershock:The Christchurch Fiasco Post-Earthquakes 2010-2016. See http://www.theinsuranceanalyst.com/my-book/ This is a book about the management of catastrophe at a National level.

The aftermath of the 2010-2012 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand offered the author a rare opportunity to examine the national policies and effectiveness of Government funding and management of catastrophe on a national scale. Her findings are both surprising and disturbing.

This is not a book about idealistic sociological concepts, but a revelation of actual Government administrative failure and financial risk-taking, in concert with corporate malfeasance. It is a book every policy-maker, politician, local-government official, Treasury official and economist, should read.

The book discloses the failures and fallacies of current disaster management strategies, not only in terms of the huge financial implications but also the management of the ‘recovery’ phase.

The Author examines international experiences of catastrophe from the viewpoint of government policies and funding strategies. She points to a fundamental conflict of interest between corporatism and the need for rapid recovery in the interests of both the affected public, business interests and the economy. She discusses the tensions between National and Local government objectives and the unheard voice of the local population. She makes comment on the limited efficacy of Civil Law and associated means of redress as protection against systematic corporate breach-of-contract and bad-faith, both in New Zealand and overseas.

A need for fundamental change in disaster management is obvious from the findings of this work and the Author proposes a viable, efficient revision of the means to achieve that objective – one which eliminates the current state of financial risk and susceptibility to Corporate subversion.

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