‘We don’t know how lucky we were’
South Marlborough remains stoic one year on from the November 14, 2016 earthquake. reports.
In a pair of towns straddling a major highway, the sound of engine noise at night has become a curiosity. People prick up their ears from inside earthquake-damaged homes, wondering about a noise that until a year ago was a nearconstant hum in the background.
Any road big enough to matter is called arterial, but for the south Marlborough towns of Seddon and Ward the description is particularly apt for State Highway 1.
Winding its way through the surrounding vineyards and goldcoloured, rolling hills, the highway pumped through a steady stream of travellers and trade – lifeblood for businesses in the area.
So when the earthquake struck, leaving Seddon and Ward stranded on one of the biggest cul de sacs in the country, there were fears it would be a kind of death knell for the towns.
‘‘The thought was Seddon would die, because its roots were cut off from Christchurch, but it’s almost been the opposite,’’ says Paul McIntyre, over a cup of coffee in the Cosy Corner Cafe.
It’s late in the morning, but a few hours earlier the Seddon institution would have been full with hi-vis clad road workers, picking up lunch on their way south to work on the highway.
While he lives in Blenheim, McIntyre spends a lot of time in the town. He manages 150 hectares of vineyards in the area, and has seen the effects of the earthquake on his six staff.
All of them suffered damage to their homes, but a year on the repairs have largely been done and McIntyre has the sense that life, for the most part, has returned to normal.
But the cracks are still there. The day before, Cosy Corner worker Marlene ‘Brownie’
Jackson sat in the small roadside building watching the glass in the windows wobble as a 4.1-magnitude aftershock rattled the town.
‘‘We’re always thinking there’s going to be another big one. We’re right on the corner over there,’’ she says, pointing in the direction of her damaged house.
‘‘Even the sound of trucks going down the road, you go ‘oh’ – there are different little things that set it off again, then you remember the sound.’’
The sound and the destruction wrought by the Kaiko¯ura earthquake was worse, she says, than the previous two major earthquakes that struck the area in 2013.
Brownie is still in insurance limbo. The brickwork on her home was badly damaged by the earthquake, and there are differing thoughts on how much it will cost to repair.
In a town of around 900 people, the losses were significant. A year on and the only pub, the East Coast Inn, is still closed, shuttered up and likely damaged beyond repair.
Most houses built of brick and mortar are gone, Mike says, and the dramatic seabed uplift down the road at Ward Beach has put the future of the largest employer in town, Burkhart Fisheries, at risk.
‘‘You get a little bit defeatist really, don’t you? At the end of the day you’ve got to pick yourself up and get on with it, no one’s going to do it for you,’’ he says.
At the Burkhart Fisheries factory, brothers and owners Clarence farmer John Murray used to consider the river a friend. These days he’s not so sure.
From a vantage point on his sprawling family farm, Woodbank, John points down at a patch of lush, riverside grazing land.
To the untrained eye, the view, while beautiful, is entirely unremarkable. But for those who know the area the change is obvious – a year ago the river didn’t used to be there.
During the earthquake, uplift in the Clarence River created a diversion, channelling water off in a new path straight through some of John’s best grazing land.
He estimates he’s lost around 25 hectares to the river and a further 25 has been left inaccessible, cut off on the new island formed by the earthquake.
John suffered other losses, including severe damage to the 111-year-old Woodbank homestead, but seeing his farmland erode into the river has been the hardest to swallow.
‘‘When you have a river nibbling at the best country you’ve got, you don’t really think about much else. It’s far greater than having a couple houses damaged that may be written off – that’s minor,’’ he says.
And a year on, the effects are still being felt.
Twice in the past month, overflow from the new river channel has swamped a smaller farm, and John fears if nothing is done the SH1 bridge further down could eventually come under threat.
The unusually wet spring has caused other problems for farmers in the area. Rain has seeped into cracks, and sent slips down onto repaired fences and farm tracks.
Bluff Station farmers Sue and Richard Murray, whose massive 12,000 hectare property stretches from the Inland Kaiko¯ura Ranges to the Clarence River, know this all too well.
‘‘It’ll be at least a couple more years until we get ourselves even back to normal, back to where we were. Because of housing, because of roading, because of fencing,’’ Sue says.
A short walk from the Murrays’ home is their single men’s quarters, directly on top of the Kekerengu Fault. Twisted, and shunted off its foundations, it serves as a potent reminder of the force of the earthquake.
But despite the issues, and the sense of isolation caused by the closure of the highway, people in the rural communities of south Marlborough are a stoic lot.
‘‘It’ll heal over,’’ Richard says, tracing the path of the fault line through his property.
‘‘It’s devastating, my generation was taught from an early age ... to save and put acorns away for a rainy day. That’s what’s saved us. But 45 years of acorn stacking only lasts so long.’’ Dennis Burkhart
Woodbank farmer John Murray with the new course of the Clarence River, eating through some of his best grazing land in the background.
State Highway 1, north of Ward.
Damage at Seddon SuperValue.