A year on

It’s just over a year since Cantabrians’ lives were turned upside down. We spoke to a few members about living and working in Christchurch.

Tracy KlennerLife on hold

Tracy Klenner, a PSA organiser in Christchurch, is not one to moan. But even her cheerful disposition can struggle at times with the aftermath of the earthquakes. 

“The weekends are the worst. All the normal leisure routines have gone,” she says.

Tracy lives in the eastern suburbs that have been devastated by the earthquakes. She’s had over 30 tons of liquefaction in her garden and is waiting for the house to be demolished and rebuilt – though she’s no idea when that will be.  “We’re stuck. There’s no way to speed up these decisions.”

The routine of work comes as a welcome relief.  “You can go to work in the west and forget about earthquakes, particularly with the support we get from the PSA and our lovely new office. But when you get home and want to do something pleasurable outside, there’s nothing to do. Some days you can’t even go outside without a dust mask.”

When the north-westerly blows, the neighbourhood becomes a dustbowl from the silt piled up in vacant properties.

Tracy counts off the leisure facilities lost to the neighbourhood: “The swimming pool’s gone, the large gym’s gone, the sports’ fields have gone, our local bar’s gone. The swimming beaches have re-opened but if there are high rains or a large after-shock, they close them again.”

Walks with the dog through a forest park or along the river were part of Tracy’s weekend routine but even that’s become difficult. Falling trees make the forest parks dangerous and the river bank is no longer a lovely paved walk down to the sea. “Now it’s just a gravelled mess. The sewage pipes are above ground and leak constantly so you’re walking past spilled sewage. It’s not nice”

Gardening was another favourite relaxation but liquefaction has destroyed the garden and the future is too uncertain to invest time and money into building another. “The only things to have survived are the roses, hardy beasts that they are,” says Tracy.

With few weekend leisure opportunities, what’s left is pondering about the uncertainties ahead. “People are anxious. Are you going to stay here; do you build friendships; do you start a new sport this season?”

Many have already left and the once-vibrant community is pockmarked by empty sections and broken houses sinking into silt. “Your favourites have gone,” says Tracy – the favourite coffee shop, the fish and chip shop where they knew to throw in a sausage for the dog.

“It’s that neighbourhood stuff where you know the people. Nobody wants to moan because there are others much worse off. But I think it does get all of us down, especially at the weekends.”



cathrene brophyThe security of your own desk

When everything around you is uncertain and nothing’s normal, having your own desk at work provides some much-needed stability, says senior social worker Cathrene Brophy.

Cathrene works for Child, Youth and Family, an arm of the Ministry of Social Development, and is a PSA national delegate. “No-one’s in their normal place,” she says.

“We’re all in temporary accommodation, here, there and everywhere.  Over the past year, I think we lost a sense of belonging. We had no base to come back to. We were jammed in, sitting at tables and sharing what desks we had. We were on rosters to work at home so someone else could sit at a desk.”

The ministry has worked hard to get everyone in more suitable accommodation. Cathrene and some of her colleagues are now based in the staff rooms of a former residence which, while far from perfect, are a big improvement. She’s now looking forward to the day when the whole team can be together again in one office.

“When you’re not connected to your team, you lose collegial support. Personally, I think practice has suffered because of that.”

Cathrene says Christchurch social workers are managing enormous stress levels, often having to put their own personal anxieties on hold while trying to work through someone else’s situation. “So it’s important to have your location and desk sorted. Once that’s done, you can relax and get on with the next thing.”

It annoys her to hear these difficult, over-crowded work arrangements in Christchurch being trumpeted as “innovative” ways to work, an example for others to follow.

“Desk-hopping and space-sharing may be great for some but it doesn’t suit our business when you might be working with 18 families at the same time. If you talk to anyone, the important thing is to have your own desk and a desk phone. Mobile phones are OK when you have good network coverage but we have blank spots all over the city.”

Since the first big earthquake, the PSA and the ministry have worked closely together. “That’s remained and it’s been a real positive,” says Cathrene. One of the really good things is the weekly newsletter to keep ministry staff connected across the city. The idea came from PSA delegates and it’s still being published as a joint newsletter.

“People are often tense so there are a lot of workplace problems. Even so, I think the ministry has been particularly good at supporting our people, more so than most.”   


container shopsA struggle to make ends meet

In any disaster, whether natural or man-made, it seems the poorest are hit hardest. That’s certainly been the case in Christchurch: by and large it’s the people on the lowest incomes who have lost the most.

Many home-based support workers are struggling to manage on reduced wages and extra work-related costs. And for many, that’s on top of the stress of a damaged home.

“A lot of home-support workers are dealing with the stress of their own earthquake-related problems but even so, you have to put on a brave face when dealing with clients. You can’t let your personal problems override that,” says Jenny Goodman, a Healthcare home-support worker and co-convenor of the PSA’s Community Public Services sector.

But people are really feeling the pinch, she says. Many of the elderly who relied on home support have moved out of Christchurch and that’s meant less work, and therefore less pay, for support workers who don’t even have guaranteed hours of work.  

Driving from one client to another has become more time-consuming and costly. Potholed, quake-damaged roads take a daily toll on drivers’ nerves and car suspensions. The extra time it’s taking people to travel between assignments is not paid for; neither are the costs of fixing the damage to the car.

Some new work opportunities have emerged with a programme rolled out by Christchurch hospital to relieve the pressure on beds. Elderly patients are now discharged early and cared for at home by nurses and support staff.

“It was rolled out earlier than planned so it’s been quite intensive,” says Jenny. The hours can also be difficult with split shifts and late nights. “Some people have found the hours too difficult on top of dealing with what’s happening at home.”


Kim Hunt and Euan FraserLife in the manor

Bedroom jokes are wearing a bit thin for Inland Revenue staff based in the former officers’ barracks, grandly named Wigram Manor. The maze of bedrooms is now a centre for tax assessments and other IR work. Though the washbasins remain, the beds have been replaced by desks and computers.

Since the February earthquake, the IR building in central Christchurch has been out of bounds and staff are now scattered over 28 sites.

Delegates Kim Hunt and Euan Fraser are among the 85 people working from Wigram. They enjoy the lovely grounds and having lunch under the trees. But for some, the shift has meant a lot of extra travel and and that can make life difficult when there are children to be dropped off at school or childcare.

“There’s less flexibility than there used to be which can mean extra costs for childcare,” says Kim. “We think more needs to recognise individual circumstances and find a solution that also suits the business.”

A possible option is allowing some work to be done from home and Euan says this is something delegates and management are exploring.

“Before we moved to Wigram, we had to work from home and it opened my eyes to the opportunities. I could get assessors through the house or repairs done and still get my work done. We’ll see what learnings we can take out of that experience.”

Like thousands in Cantabrians, Kim’s home life is on hold as she waits to find out whether her house will be demolished. “I try to forget about it,” she says. “A lot of people are much worse off.”

But the emotional stress and practical difficulties of living in an earthquake zone have driven people out of Christchurch and they’ve lost many colleagues. The violent December shock was the last straw for some, says Kim.

If there is a positive, both Kim and Euan say the earthquakes have strengthened the bonds of family and friends.

“It’s certainly given me a greater appreciation of the people around me and family in particular,” says Euan.

Kim says she and her family have always been close but now they see a lot more of each other. “Particularly the nieces and nephews. You do things with them to take their minds off the earthquakes – then you realise how much you enjoyed it so you keep on doing it.”


This article is from the March 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.