As told to Paul Little.

I always used that quote "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." The worst happened on February 22, 2011 when 185 people died and hundreds were seriously injured in the Canterbury earthquake. People lost their homes and, in some instances, their neighbourhoods.

But it really did bring out the best in people. Amazing things emerged from that experience. The Student Volunteer Army, for instance, are still alive and well and the most popular club on campus. That speaks volumes.

It was a year that had a dramatic impact on my life. I lost my house, which got red-zoned in the process. I felt really sad at the time, but it wasn't until the next year that we left and by then I couldn't wait to go, because the area had degraded so much. What made it a great place to live were the wetlands and the neighbours, and we'd lost both of them.


But on the other side of things, the response effort after the February earthquake saw us coming together as part of the community in the east. I was living in Bexley, just over the bridge from New Brighton, so I spent my days based there. I set up a desk in the local police station and helped get information out to people so they knew where they could collect water. I became part of a group who put together a food distribution centre. There was a powerful sense of self-belief that emerged from a community that could do this all by themselves with everyone contributing. Everyone knew someone who could help out in some way. We came together and played to our strengths. People delivered water from all around New Zealand. Supermarket workers handed out perishables that wouldn't survive without electricity. It was phenomenal.

From a political point of view, it's such a shame that all the barriers came down in the immediate aftermath except for the political ones. People said it looked like a war zone and I'd say: Why don't we have a War Cabinet like they did in World War II? But it was an election year. I always say to people — don't have your disaster in an election year.

But it's that spirit and strength that were on display and the memory of it that always gets me out of bed in the morning. I could never feel I had no more to give while I had that memory in my heart.

The saddest thing about 2011 was that on December 23, at lunchtime, when we were just about to close for Christmas — bang, there was another major aftershock. That was the last of the big aftershocks, but it was just over six months since the previous big one. Six months was a magic time. We honestly thought it was all over. That was the most demoralising of the earthquakes. I came out of my office and sat in New Brighton and thought: "I'm going to cry." Then I thought: "No, because then the people who are with me will, and then everyone else will."

So I didn't. I didn't cry much at all. But I spent Boxing Day digging silt.