THE COURAGE IN KAIKOURA’S COMEBACK
AFTER THE DEVASTATING QUAKE, THIS TOWN IS BACK IN BUSINESS
Two years ago in the dead of night, Kaikoura was woken suddenly as the earth convulsed and buckled in a powerful and deadly 7.8magnitude earthquake.
For two terrifying minutes, the top of the South Island heaved so violently that great chasms appeared across the landscape, buildings collapsed and the seabed rose from the water.
Its aftermath was devastating. Two people were killed, while the seaside settlement was cut off, the main highway buried under an avalanche of debris.
Two years on, with State Highway 1 open again, mayor Winston Gray (66) is upbeat.
“Kaikoura is back in business. We’ve got a good future. It just hurts in the meantime,” he says with a wry chuckle.
Local baker Sophia Smedley says it’s only been in the last few months that life has seemed normal. She recalls turning up to the bakery hours after the powerful tremor and finding a scene of chaos, with trays tipped over and the 15-tonne oven shunted across the floor.
While the shop was able to open soon after, it wasn’t long before the bakers started running low on all-important flour and bread production threatened to grind to a halt.
“Getting supplies was dreadful,” remembers Sophia (49). “We had barely three days of flour left. People would bring us in flour they had at home, which was really sweet but didn’t go anywhere near to what we needed.
“In the end, the flour came by order of the Prime Minister’s office on a helicopter and we picked it up from the racecourse. It seems so surreal when you think back on it.”
With the township looking like a war zone, she says the shop represented a small piece of everyday life. “People told us it was so nice to have a pie or something normal, because nothing was normal.”
But on November 14, Sophia won’t be making any attempt to mark the dreadful day.
“It wasn’t a happy occasion. It was not a nice time and it’s not something I want to go back and relive in any form.”
Mayor Gray, who was more than 200km away in St Arnaud when the quake hit, says there’s still major infrastructure work to be completed around the district and while many homes remain damaged, the rebuild is well and truly underway.
“It’s two years now so it’s gone pretty quickly really, but the roads aren’t finished yet. They’re still working on the highway − that’s the main work going on, getting that complete.”
By far the biggest boost to the community came when the main route connecting Kaikoura to the top of the South Island was restored 11 months ago.
“Everything hinged on the reopening of State Highway 1,” he says. “Getting people back in town has changed the place.“
“This year has been a lot more normal than the year before,” says Lisa Bond (42), Whale Watch Kaikoura’s marketing manager.
“The quake brought our business to a halt. With all three roads closed, people couldn’t come in and with the sea floor rising, it meant our boats were sitting on the hard.
“It was a year to the day later that the marina reopened and we were able to start operating with all four vessels. Last summer we were back to full capacity and it was great to see the town so busy.”
Lisa recalls when the team ventured back into the water five days after the jolt to examine the impact on sea life.
“We did not know what to prepare ourselves for. We went about three miles offshore and put the hydrophone in the water. All you could hear was the clicking of sperm whales so there was a lot of jubilation.
“We ended up seeing five whales, plus dolphins, seals and an albatross. We all looked at each other going, ‘You know, this sucks right now, but there’s hope because the marine life is still here.’”
Lisa, who is also a district councillor and church elder, says the community is still rallying in the face of disaster.
“We have our ups and downs
‘People told us it was so nice to have a pie or something normal, because nothing was normal.’ – Baker Sophia Smedley
but I think the great thing is that we’ve had good communication with each other.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Gray is hoping the rebuild will bring a slew of new development.
“I was in real estate for 18 years prior to the quake and we tried to get a hotel and it never happened. Get a damn earthquake and suddenly a hotel comes,” he says, adding that there are more developments to come.
While many people are living in damaged homes, there is a feeling the community is getting back to pre-quake times.
Lisa is still homeless but says there is much to be grateful for.
“I lost my home. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still in a caravan, but then I think I’ve got a roof over my head and great people around me so really I don’t have much to complain about.”
Ups and downs: Two years on, the roads are still being fixed but the town is no longer cut off. Below: Resident Lisa is homeless but grateful, while Mayor Gray is upbeat about the rebuild.
Post- quake, locals pooled their flour so baker Sophia could keep bread on their tables.