Twelve months after the Kaikoura earthquake, those whose lives were jolted apart are still hurting but they say they must suck it up and move on. They also say it’s been a tough old year. Kurt Bayer reports.

From moss-mottled concrete steps, Jules Wallace watches them play.

Little fingers knead and squelch slime. Raising their palms, green-and-crimson goo oozes and drips in stretchy tears to squeals of delight.

Wallace smiles. They remind her of granddaughter Sophia before she died, not much older than them. Kids being kids. Not a care in the world, under a high spring sun, as it should be.

Spare them the worries, the doubts. The feelings of sorrow and loss, both fresh and aged, at seeing your earthquake-smacked house being unceremoniously razed by digger jaws a year on. Let them smudge and smear and giggle and grow.


Let the adults wonder, what now?

"The love is very strong here and we're very grateful for what we've got, but there's no doubt it's been a hell of a hard year," Wallace says, placing fallen plastic blocks back on top of a multi-coloured tower.

If a year's a long time in politics, 12 months can be both fleeting or eternity for disaster survivors.

Just ask Cantabrians, even today. And so it is for the people of Waiau and Kaikoura.

The magnitude 7.8 that tossed them from their beds at 12.02am on November 14 last year turned both the contents of their kitchens and their worlds upside down.

It claimed two lives, pancaked buildings, sheared roads and rolling farmland, collapsed mountainsides, and lifted the Kaikoura seabed out of the water.

For many, the clean-up was quick. Life soon went on. As Waiau resident and community volunteer Alex Bush puts it: "It's a rural mindset of, you just suck it up and move on."

There are some, however, who are still picking up the pieces. Authorities closely monitor mental health. Insurance stand-offs. Feelings of being forgotten. Major roads are still closed and far from being fully functional.

Tourists, the lifeblood of the seaside, whale-watching mecca of Kaikoura, are only trickling back.

With the kids buzzing around her feet, Wallace looks around little Waiau.

It's busy enough. Trucks are parked outside Brenda's on Lyndon cafe and shop. Dusty farm utes thrum past with barking dogs. A lawnmower whirrs.

But the quake has left its mark on the tiny North Canterbury town, population 300.

It had 26 buildings red-stickered. For such a small community, it's been a devastating blow. Locals are exasperated that the event is officially coined the "Kaikoura Earthquake" when Waiau wore its vicious epicentre.

As well as many homes being destroyed, several key community buildings and infrastructure have been ruled off-limits. These included the bowling club, Scouts den, swimming pool, playcentre, church and the only pub, which now trades out of a temporary pop-up structure.

Waiau Playcentre co-ordinator Jules Wallace, left, and its president Courtney Ridings.
Waiau Playcentre co-ordinator Jules Wallace, left, and its president Courtney Ridings.

The future of many buildings are still in limbo. They're cracked, leaning, fenced off, boarded up, danger zones. The bricks from some houses are stacked on front lawns. Weatherboard is exposed.

Wallace wept when she watched her home of nine years being demolished last week. She and partner Peter managed to save a memorial stone and cross to granddaughter Sophia in the front garden before the excavators moved in.

The popular 10-year-old with the sparkling eyes died in a farm accident six years ago. She is buried in the same plot as her brother Liam, who died in his cot aged five months.

"We had a lot of memories there. When your house dies, it's like you're grieving another death," Wallace says.

The quake hit their house like a freight train, Peter Wallace says. Hearing it rumbling towards them, he stood to check on the kids.

"It hit with a boom and threw me across the room," the 62-year-old says.

"I tried to get to the kids but the doors wouldn't open and stuff had tipped everywhere. I could hear the kids screaming. I yelled at them to get in the middle bunk and stay there."

He managed to break windows to rescue them. Slotting them into gumboots, they crunched through glass to the local primary school where the frightened town met in the dark.

"We all sat there in the rain, happy to be alive," he says.

Once the dust settled and dawn came, they found Waiau Playcentre, where Jules Wallace works as a co-ordinator, badly damaged.

A pillar of the town for more than 40 years, the parent-led playcentre building was ruled off-limits. It's been fenced off ever since. Grass grows tall around the sad sight of the abandoned playground.

In March, the playcentre reopened in the nearby Plunket building, opposite a crumbling 107-year-old Waiau Lodge Hotel.

With a 10-month rent-free arrangement, it is open twice a week, for up to 10 children. Cramped and temporary, it will do for now.

Meanwhile, its hard-working committee has leased land 100m away from Hurunui District Council on a 20-year, $1-a-year nominal lease. Now they are seeking grants and fundraising relentlessly to come up with the $250,000 for the new building.

Although some homes were destroyed or had later to be demolished, others have been repaired. Photo / Kurt Bayer
Although some homes were destroyed or had later to be demolished, others have been repaired. Photo / Kurt Bayer

The fundraisers have been true to their rural Kiwi roots: catering at dog trials and running pig hunts.

"It's been pretty classic, but the kids love it," says Courtney Ridings, playcentre president and mum to playcentre kids, Noah, 4, and 2-year-old Harper.

"If it wasn't for the community, we would've struggled. We've had to do it all ourselves, and at times we've had to say, 'No fundraisers for a few weeks, we just need a break'.

"But this place is just critical for everyone, not just the kids, but for the parents too."

Heading 20km north towards the still snow-topped Kaikoura mountain range, Courtney's mother, Donna Ridings, has struggled too.

At the bottom of a shingle road that winds through a picturesque green valley, her dream home, 106-year old Sherwood Lodge pancaked in the quake.

Ridings and partner Paul Craig were lucky to escape with their lives. As the violent shaking increased in intensity, the mansion's walls started to cave in and the second-floor roof collapsed. The pair leaped 2m out of a bedroom window and fled to the relative safety of the tennis court.

A year later, their beloved homestead remains a sorry sight of crumpled concrete and river stone, oak, plaster and lath. It's deemed a complete rebuild, estimated to cost as much as $7.5 million.

Ridings has rejected her insurance company's $1.8m cash settlement offer and is now locked in negotiations.

"It's only been a year, and I know that for people in Christchurch it's been seven years . . . but it's certainly not been a constructive time for us," the health and safety manager said.

For six months, Ridings lived in a caravan parked on the tennis court. Later, she moved to a back shed to escape the howling winds that tear through the valley. She's since moved to a rental flat in Christchurch, partly to avoid the sad scene.

"That was the hardest part," she says, "going home every night and seeing the devastation. It took a real toll on me. It's been so frustrating."

Private insurers have fully settled 69 per cent of all residential and commercial claims for the November 14 event. The Insurance Council of New Zealand says it's "very pleased with our rate of progress". However, Christchurch accountant and advocate for insurance and EQC claimants Cam Preston says it's not good enough.

"People are living in garages, some haven't even seen an assessor yet; we don't see that as something to be proud of," he says.

Preston is also concerned that private insurers assessing damage in Kaikoura have been advised by the Earthquake Commission to use a part of the EQC Act that he says wrongly defines replacement.

"Claimants are likely to be negotiating replacement of damaged property at a level that is significantly below the standard of replacement that they are entitled to, according to the Joint Agreement signed last April," he warns.

Things are moving on for many quake victims, however.

Just south at Scargill, hammered by a vicious magnitude-5.7 aftershock, locals are deciding whether to repair, rebuild or erect a new community hall. Grants and relief have come from Government but communities are also pitching in and doing it themselves.

Hurunui District Mayor Winton Dalley urges his people to see opportunities instead of loss.

"People have stepped up in their communities," he says. "There's always good stuff that comes out of adversity, it just takes time and a bit of letting go of the past." he says.

Getting the roads back will be critical to the respective recoveries of North Canterbury and Marlborough.

State Highway 1 south of Kaikoura "reopened" before last Christmas. But it's been closed regularly after storms or aftershocks and for ongoing repairs and heavy work, much to the frustration of locals, especially business owners in Kaikoura, Cheviot and Greta Valley, who become cut off.

The bridge at Waiau shortly after the November 2016 earthquake. Photo / Mike Scott
The bridge at Waiau shortly after the November 2016 earthquake. Photo / Mike Scott

The NZ Transport Agency this month confirmed plans to reopen SH1 north of Kaikoura to traffic on December 15 this year, restoring the critical coastal highway link from Picton to Christchurch.

However, several sites will remain under construction. There will be some unsealed surfaces, lane closures and stop/go traffic controls. The route will be closed at night in places for several months and there will be planned closures for "high-impact work".

The estimated time to drive between Picton and Christchurch on SH1 when it reopens in December is expected to be a minimum of 5.5 hours.

Communication is crucial to ensuring people know what to expect on the roads, says Kaikoura Mayor Winston Gray.

"The words going out will be very important," he says. "The stats say 20 per cent of people don't listen to the advice being given. They drive up here and get to Goose Bay or Clarence and wonder why the road is closed. They just aren't getting it."

The Inland Rd to Kaikoura was the first accessible overland route to the stricken seaside town after the quake.

Initially, only the army could get through, bringing in tonnes of aid by convoy via a long, arduous journey, taking upwards of six hours.

For months, the journey took hours, with multiple stops at roadworks where contractors and machinery of all types - diggers, bulldozers, graders, rollers, tractors, trucks - worked furiously to clear giant landslips.

But now it's a different story. Inland Route 70 from Waiau to Kaikoura takes around 75 minutes in either direction.

The improvements to the road are vast. Stop-go signs are infrequent. The road is re-directed at the worst sites, particularly a section known as Whales Back.

The major hold-ups now are trucks, some laden with huge loads of steel girders and heavy machinery for the roadworks going on north of Kaikoura.

There are also several campervans and rental cars.

But once in Kaikoura, it is evident that things are far from returning to pre-quake levels of tourist boom.

The main street of West End is eerily quiet. Locals doing routine errands and fluoro-shirted roading contractors greatly outnumbered tourists.

Several cafes are closed at lunchtime. The historic and imposing Adelphi Hotel has been partly demolished. Other buildings are boarded up or cordoned off.

One tourist, Zeus Romero, a 27-year-old magician from Barcelona, has come to see the seals. He will stay for two days before heading south to Queenstown and Milford Sound.

"We had friends say there was an earthquake and the seals had gone, but they are now back, so we came to see. There is no reason not to come," Romero says.

It's been tough times for the tourist-dependent town.

Two of the major operators, Whale Watch and Dolphin Encounter, both shut for weeks after the quake.

Damage to the town's marina, and with the seabed jumping an extraordinary 2m, meant they couldn't get their boats into the water.

Whale Watch, world-renowned for spotting 20m sperm whales, was forced to put three of its four boats in dry dock. Running at just 25 per cent capacity for almost a year was challenging for the company, admits marketing manager Lisa Bond.

"That's just what we had to do. There was no other option," she said.

It was a similar story for Dolphin Encounter, says co-owner Dennis Buurman. Business has been down at least 30 per cent.

"It's been exceptionally challenging," he says. "It's been survival in a way."

But on Tuesday, on the first-year anniversary of the quake, a redeveloped multi million-dollar marina will be officially opened at South Bay. Thousands of cubic metres of rocks have been dug out of the channels and a new jetty will be able to cater for cruise ship tenders.

It can't come soon enough for the recovering community.

The tour companies are feeling positive about the new marina, and with the reopening of SH1, an expected return of more tourist cash. Whale Watch now has its four boats back in the water and early summer bookings are reportedly heartening.

"We've never experienced anything like what we went through," says Buurman. "But we're confident the people will come back. People still come here and can't believe the place. With the sea and the mountains, it's still pretty hard to beat."

There are other success stories in town too.

Quake-damaged Mitre 10 Kaikoura reopened last month as Hammer Hardware Kaikoura. Roz and Bruce Hills, along with son James and daughter Cindy, have been flat out ever since.

"We've been a part of the community for a long time and we know how much they've missed the store while it's been closed," Bruce says.

Even the mayor has been popping in for his gardening supplies. He's been buoyed by his community's spirit to get things back up and running.

"We're going to get some good stuff come out of this," says Gray.

Mark Fissenden's Paper Plus shop was yellow-stickered after the deadly jolt.

So he jumped on his father's digger and helped clear a passage through the Inland Rd, meeting fellow father-and son contractors Mark and Sam Powell from Lyford Contracting at the Conway River Bridge.

A fortnight later, he'd relocated to a smaller store a few doors down.

Now, he's the driving force behind a new pop-up mall across the road on the cleared Adelphi site which will open before Christmas.

"That will create more pedestrian activity, which we need. It's been a tough old year," Gray says.

"It's going to take some time to recover. We're looking to summer and we think it'll be okay, but will it be good? That's the question."

Around the town, the service industry - the garages, engineers, contractors, supermarkets - is flat out.

But others, especially smaller operators and people Gray describes as being "in the area of discretionary tourist spend", are struggling.

The annual spend was slashed by almost half, from $120 million to $63m. "That's a lot of money not in the economy," Gray says.

The financial stress, losing homes and businesses, coupled with Kaikoura's isolation and the disaster coming after three years of North Canterbury drought, has also seen an increase in mental health concerns.

"People are experiencing what you would expect to experience after any major event. They are tired, exhausted, and still doing their normal jobs but on top of that dealing with insurance, and financial worries, and everything else," says Rose Henderson, Canterbury District Health Board's clinical lead for the Recovery and Wellbeing North Canterbury and Kaikoura team.

Over the past 12 months, a small team of mental health professionals have been touring the quake-hit communities and taking referrals from GPs and social service providers.

They've also had a presence at dog trials, school barbecues and community meetings on road updates.

"We want to provide rapid access at an intervention point to enable whatever the problem is to try and be addressed rather than that problem escalating and becoming worse," Henderson says. "The mantra I use is 'positively adapting to a changed reality'."

Tuesday's first anniversary will be emotional for many people, she accepts, but stresses it is important to acknowledge the landmark moment without "catastrophising" it.

Alternative therapy has been offered at Crazy Jane's. Hair stylist Jane Hill reopened her salon on the northern fringe of Kaikoura within days "because people depended on me".

Hill had just hung her Christmas decorations that evening and had gone to bed when the ground ruptured.

The entire contents of her salon - chairs, till, scissors, mirrors, towels, sprays - were hurled into one corner. Before she had tidied it all back, she was cutting hair on the street outside.

"People needed old Crazy Jane and I needed to make people feel normal. It's a kind of therapy," says the colourful mother of two sons.

Her home suffered minor quake damage too. But she has opened it up to accommodate two contractors working on the SH1 road and rail rebuild.

Things have shifted, she feels. "My life is damaged, my road is damaged. It's like living in a totally different town," Hill says.

"We're a bit more on edge than before. And I think the town is now run by women - they kept the town going, kept their men strong, opened their homes to strangers, looked after the kids.

"It has brought us all a lot closer together but we've lost a lot of really cool people, and I miss their faces."

Standing outside her little salon, she waves to a tooting car. Squinting in the sun that shines off snow-capped ranges, she smells the salty sea breeze. "I hope they come back," she says.


● Today (Nov.11): Shaken Not Stirred free community concert featuring The Feelers, Soulsystem, and Dillastrate from 2pm - 8pm at Takahanga Domain.
Sunday, November 12: One Year On community event and BBQ from 3.30pm - 8.30pm at Waiau Village Green.
● Sunday, November 12: Combined Church Community Service, with special guest NZDF Padre Zane Elliot, at 10am at Churchill Park (Memorial Hall if wet).
● Tuesday, November 14: Dawn service and blessing led by te Rūnanga o Kaikōura at 6am at restored Kaikoura South Bay Marina. Official marina opening 12.30pm followed by harbour and boat tours.
● Tuesday, November 14: Kaikoura community picnic 4pm - 8pm at Churchill Park.

* Anyone finding it hard to cope and needs support can ring the Earthquake Support Line on 0800 777 846 available 24/7.