The little town doing it tough
A New Year storm hit Kaiaua hard, but for many it remains a place to ‘sit and chill’, writes
Special series: Examining the big issues facing our small towns and what the locals are doing about them.
Rexy Harrison has noticed an increase in the ‘for sale’ signs going up around Kaiaua.
It’s two weeks since a storm ripped through this coastal town on the Firth of Thames, and it was the last straw for some of his neighbours.
‘‘That house over there, I reckon they’ll end up leaving,’’ Harrison says, gesturing across the road as he leans tattooed and bare-chested against the railing on his front porch.
‘‘We’ve had two in six months. Getting so close together, it’s hitting people hard.’’
Remnants of the storm’s fury are littered around Kaiaua. Fences are dressed with debris, power poles lean askew, and saltwater surges have turned entire fields brown.
Sand, sludge and shells cover the road a metre thick; it’s since been scraped off into piles, creating temporary sand dunes. Graders and diggers are working to rebuild the beach.
Twelve homes were left uninhabitable in the town. A relief fund has been set up to help the worst-affected families.
Harrison remembers four or five similar storms since his family moved here 33 years ago. They’re a blow, but locals muck in to help each other recover. ‘‘It brings people together, I guess,’’ he says.
His daughter Tailarh wraps an arm around her dad’s waist as he talks about being a solo parent.
‘‘Kaiaua is awesome,’’ Harrison says. ‘‘We can live off the land out here if we need to, and it’s where I want to bring my kids up.’’
At the 2013 census, the town had a population of 789. There’s a hotel, a gas station, a dairy, and a fish ‘n’ chip shop. There was a hotel here as early as 1885, after the Smith brothers arrived for cattle farming a decade earlier, but not much has changed since then.
Lynn Yeager describes the town as a ‘‘little hidden gem’’. She came here 23 years ago with her husband, and fell in love with the place.
‘‘I hate the term backwater, but it was definitely undiscovered,’’ she says, greying hair tucked back beneath a baseball cap.
‘‘A lot of people come here because it’s a place to sit and chill and enjoy the scenery, and do nothing. And then come over and buy an ice-cream!’’
Yeager’s the person to talk to for cold treats in Kaiaua – she runs The Pink Shop, an aptly-named corner store where her daughter scoops your choice from around a dozen flavours.
The town is ‘‘most definitely getting bigger’’, says Harrison. Most of the recent arrivals are from Auckland, although Yeager insists they’re nice people who have ‘‘blended in well’’.
Among them is Lynn Holroyd, who moved with her husband six months ago. Their street in Papatoetoe was crowded out by developers, and it all became too much.
‘‘I feel peaceful by the water,’’ she says, ‘‘and we wanted to find somewhere good to retire’’.
Holroyd’s floral shirt and windswept hair represent a more laid-back way of life. She chuckles wheezily as she recalls how friendly everyone was when the couple first arrived.
‘‘You started to learn everybody’s name, and if you wanted something done, they’d say ‘Oh, you go and see so-and-so who lives at number 21’’’.
The storm came as a blow. Holroyd had spent months landscaping her new home, including bringing in seven truckloads of topsoil and 2000 litres of water for the plants.
‘‘We had everything ready for Christmas,’’ she says, ‘‘And just over a week later it’s all gone.’’
It was initially too much to face, ‘‘but time goes on, I just think ‘oh well, I’ve got to start saving up for it all over again’. At least people are still helping each other, and I think everybody’s recovering.’’
Yeager agrees the town will pull through like it always has, even if people are ‘‘feeling a little bit despondent’’.
‘‘Time heals, you know,’’ she says. ‘‘It won’t be long and we’ll keep going and move on.’’