3 Comments

As widely reported in the media yesterday, details of EQC claimants and claims have been leaked in a privacy breach that effects 83,000 Christchurch households. That’s details of every claim between $10-100k, arising from the 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes. The leaked spreadsheet included details of EQC repair cost estimates and associated contractor quotes.

If this information gets into the hands of building contractors or other rebuild stakeholders, the ability to obtain a fair settlement could be compromised for many claimants. For example, if Fletcher Building (who are managing most of the leaked claims) gets their hands on the EQC numbers, then any incentive for Fletcher to manage repairs in the best  interest of the claimant, rather than EQC, could be lost.

Despite the potential ramifications of such a massive breach of sensitive financial information, EQC boss Ian Simpson, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Prime Minister John Key have all downplayed the seriousness of the leak, and brushed aside suggestions that this is simply the latest manifestation of a systemic lack of security in government storage of sensitive private information.

This particular leak of private information is cruelly ironic for many EQC claimants, who have been trying for years to get EQC to release the most basic of information on their claims, such as the estimated cost of repair. This is not trivial information; there are probably thousands of disputed “under cap” claims where repair estimates from private insurers and/or independent builders are double, or triple the $100k cap. Knowing what the EQC numbers are based on would be a big step in resolving these disputes; unfortunately the standard line from EQC has been “we can’t provide that information”.

Actually, it seems that they can. And why not? Shouldn’t the EQC and the private insurers be working together to get claims resolved as quickly as possible? Rather than barricading themselves behind locked doors, barring windows and installing razor wire, perhaps EQC staff should focus on their mandate, which is to resolve claims in a fair manner, and in a reasonable time frame. Surely such genuine efforts would do more to appease irate claimants than spending ratepayer money to fortify themselves against the people that they are meant to be looking after? Now that the very information that homeowners have been clamoring for over the past two years has been inadvertently leaked into the public domain, shouldn’t it be made available to all, so that at the very least, claimants can keep builders and private insurers honest?

I fully understand the frustration felt by so many people over this privacy breach. For many Cantabrians living with broken homes, dealing with the EQC has been one of the most stressful and time-consuming process that they have ever undertaken. In fact, I am a case in-point; “make-safe” repairs on our severely damaged, and unsafe (according to a structural engineers report completed right after the September earthquake) home were finally completed in January of this year, 28 months after the damage occurred. Let’s just say that sleeping beneath a shattered, teetering un-reinforced double-brick masonry wall for over two years has not been fun.

Ironically, the only way that we could get any information on our file was to go through the Official Information Act, after hundreds of phone calls and dozens of emails to EQC were futile – we were met with resistance at every corner.

Yet now, claim details which so many people have fought tooth-and-nail to have released, have been leaked into the public domain. Which kind of does feel like (as Green Party Christchurch spokeswoman Eugenie Sage noted), a “slap in the face”.

Many Cantabs  had such high hopes for EQC and the insurance industry, but that has steadily eroded away to wide-spread disillusion and anger. From my perspective as a natural disaster scientist, the most troubling sign is that apathy has started to creep into the once positive and proud psyche of the region. Many people are exhausted and depleted in every conceivable way, not by the thousands of aftershocks, but by the far more harrowing experience of trying to get a fair claim settlement, and many have simply given up, in an effort to get on with their lives. And many people are understandably starting to ask if the insurance industry has been actively facilitating that beaten spirit by stalling on claim settlements.

Even in the face of these challenges, Cantabs are generally very resilient, and remain passionate about rebuilding their beloved city. Fortunately, these are exactly the attributes that allow disaster-ravaged communities to adapt to adversity, and I fully expect the region to flourish in the coming years.