‘‘You'd be better off in a Third World country,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘You could get on with your life.’’
But Mark Skidmore, a Michigan State University economist who has studied the impacts of natural disasters, said wealthy countries generally fare better.
He has co-authored studies with Japanese economist Hideki Toya that show that as economies develop, they suffer fewer disaster-related deaths and less damage as a proportion of GDP. While not directly comparable, the 2011 tsunami killed 19,000 in Japan, while about 230,000 perished in the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and 11 other countries.
‘‘Wealthy countries are able to rebound more quickly than poorer countries,’’ Skidmore said. ‘‘Highly developed insurance and financial markets enable resources to flow into affected areas more quickly. Higher levels of income and other resources, including effective government operations, is also important.’’
Indonesia in some ways was an exception, because so much aid money flowed in, and it was relatively well managed. Haiti is still struggling to come back from a massive earthquake that struck its densely populated capital three years ago, the slow recovery attributed largely to political dysfunction and the magnitude of the disaster.
In Christchurch, Mayor Bob Parker said rebuilding houses could take another two years to complete, while bigger projects such as a hospital, convention center and performing arts center may require six. The shipping-container mall, with bank branches, fashion shops and a two-story cafe, has become a vibrant though temporary new city heart amid the rubble and din of heavy machinery demolishing condemned buildings.
‘‘We are on the cusp, really, of that full-speed rebuild,’’ he said from the high-rise city council building near the downtown disaster area. ‘‘All the plans have been laid, the rebuild is ramping up all the time.’’
The city’s population has declined by 13,500, or 3.6 percent, from the 380,000 people it had before the magnitude 6.3 earthquake. Some have left by choice; others because they had nowhere left to live. Parker predicts a rebound as the NZ$35 billion ($29.5 billion) reconstruction gathers pace, powering an anticipated economic boom that would draw in outside workers.
‘‘Two years down the track, I think we've made amazing progress,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s never as fast as anyone would imagine because the scale has been huge,’’ he said.
The earthquake is the costliest natural disaster in New Zealand history. It is expected to exhaust the NZ$6 billion held by the Earthquake Commission, the government insurer created after a 1931 quake killed 256 and led private insurers to limit their coverage. Taxpayers will have to meet the commission’s further costs.
The slow progress in Christchurch is typical of a major disaster in a wealthy country, said Paul Dalziel, an economist at Lincoln University outside Christchurch and the sister of the opposition lawmaker. As part of a global network developing new disaster recovery protocols for rich countries, he has been studying the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that claimed 309 lives in L'Aquila in central Italy in 2009.
‘‘It’s a universal problem that when an event of this scale occurs, it’s not easy for individuals to make decisions because they have such widespread ramifications,’’ said Dalziel, whose home was damaged in the quake. ‘‘I don’t think it’s to criticize anybody in particular. It’s just a reality that we don’t cope well with disasters of this scale.’’