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After the earthquake: Kaikōura one year on

Tuesday 14th November 2017

The people of Kaikōura open their hearts, homes and kitchens.

 

Johnny Clark had just got back in bed after taking a piss when his room began to shake. He thought it was another little earthquake - it was pretty wobbly where he lived, in Rakautara, a few minutes drive north of Kaikōura, along State Highway One. 

But the earthquake got worse. 

As Johnny's bed jolted from side to side, he began to feel like the walls of his upstairs bedroom would touch.

He scrambled onto a verandah attached to the side of the house. The force of the shaking earth, he thought, would throw him onto the grass below. 

"I just ended up laying on the ground and half that verandah actually got ripped off the side of the house," the 23-year-old says.

"Lucky it was the half that I wasn't on." 

***

The Kaikōura earthquake hit near the Canterbury town of Waiau, in New Zealand's South Island, on November 14, 2016 - a Monday morning, just after midnight. The violent shaking lasted nearly two minutes. At magnitude-7.8 and 15km deep, it was the second largest quake to rattle this country since the arrival of Europeans. It claimed the lives of two people.

In places where faults met the surface, the ground moved horizontally and vertically by up to 12 metres, carving large cracks through the landscape. Entire towns and cities moved - Kaikoura travelled upwards and north east by nearly a metre. Cape Campbell, the north eastern tip of the South Island, moved two metres closer to the North Island. Wellington moved between two and six centimetres north. 

Up to 100,000 landslides were triggered by the quake, causing a million cubic metres of rock to fall onto roads. Rakautara was cut off from Kaikōura. Kaikōura was cut off from the rest of the country. 

One year on, the front yard at Johnny's family home is still littered with boulders, some the size of small cars, that bowled down the hill in the quake.

Kaikoura.

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

***

After the shaking stopped, Johnny tried to get downstairs to his family - his dad and stepmum, his sisters and nieces and nephews were all home. The hot water cylinder had exploded, and steaming water was gushing through the staircase, which had collapsed on top of it. 

He climbed down the bannister and went outside. Moonlight shone on the beach in front of the house, and Johnny could see that the ocean was well past the low tide mark. Worried a tsunami was coming, the family grabbed blankets from the shed, picked up the children, and dashed through dense bush up into the hills behind their home.

On higher ground, they created a clearing among the mānuka trees, lit a fire and waited til first light. When it came, Johnny saw that the seabed had lifted. Forests of bull kelp that covered previously submerged rocks were exposed and crawling with sealife - paua, limpets, crays. 

Back at the house, there was no power, no running water, no cellphone coverage. No helicopters came. Rakautara was marooned. On the fourth day the family decided to walk into Kaikōura. Slips covered State Highway One. The force of the earthquake had split parts of the road and thrown the railway tracks onto the beach. 

***

Before the earthquake, Kaikōura was a buzzing tourist town, famous for its whale watching and seafood. In December 2015, 22,632 guests stayed at accommodation in the town. In December 2016, after the earthquake, the number was 3437. In the 12 months to September 2017, the amount of money spent by international tourists in the district dropped by 53 percent.

Johnny leads quite a different life now, too.

He lived in a caravan for about seven months after the quake. It was bloody cold, he says. Now, he's got a house down a cul-de-sac in Kaikoura, (it's not actually a cul de sac - but he calls it one, because the bridge over the creek collapsed and no one can get through. He uses the space to park one of his hotrods.) His house is red stickered, but he reckons that's just because a bit of the cladding has fallen off, and it's actually safe as. 

When we first meet, Johnny's in his backyard in stubbies and work boots, with a weed whacker and no earmuffs. His ginger mullet is blowing in the wind. A glazier has arrived at the same time. He throws clumps of dirt at the back of Johnny's head to get his attention. 

Johnny has offered to take us to Rakautara, beyond the roadblock at Mangamaunu. SH1 north is only open to workers and residents. Johnny often spots confused looking tourists in camper vans, wondering how they will make it to the Interislander ferry in three hours' time (the current route to Picton takes more than six hours to drive). 

Past the roadblock, steep cliffs once covered in greenery, bear ochre scars carved by the tonnes of earth and rock that the quake shook into the sea. Workers are a swarm of fluorescent orange, and a backlog of trucks head south to collect the rubble that's cleared and recycled back into the road at a cement plant to the north. 

After a 20 minute drive, Johnny pulls his dusty ute up outside the family home. He walks across the driveway, scrambles up a steep gravel bank, over the train tracks and road, jumps a fence, then another, and heads down to the stony beach. To his right is Nin's Bin, the blue and white roadside caravan set up by his grandfather in 1977 to sell the crays he, then his son Rodney, then Johnny, caught from the ocean it fronts onto. For 40 years it funded the Clark family. 

But when the road closed, Nin's Bin closed too. A flax bush has grown up to obscure the blackboard that advertised crayfish in eight different languages. It's now surrounded by orange fences, diggers, utes, warning signs and the prefabricated rooms used as a base for some of the workers fixing the highway.

"Everyone has had to go and find other jobs," Johnny says. His stepmother is working on the road, his dad, who sports a matching mullet, is building trailers. 

"I'm still fishing, but I'm not fishing for the crays for the shop, I'm fishing for China."

He hopes the road - and Nin's Bin - will reopen soon.

Down on the beach, rocks that were immersed in water and covered in pink coralline algae before the earthquake are bleached white by the sunlight they're now exposed to. Paua, limpet and cockle shells litter the beach. Further out, waves crash onto rocks covered in sea lettuce, and a pair of seals watch Johnny warily as he heads out to retrieve his cray pot. 

A variable oystercatcher in Kaikōura

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

In the weeks after the quake stranded Rakautara and destroyed the slipway that Johnny used to launch his fishing boat, Tamatea, the family found an alternative route to town. Johnny hooked the boat to the back of his ute, towed it along what remained of the road, avoiding slips by driving on the beach and through the disused train tunnels, and launched Tamatea in town. He made the trip back and forth daily for a couple of weeks, fishing all day and returning home at night, until someone laid bricks in front of the train tunnels.

After that, the family walked to town and back when they needed to, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with groceries. They've had vehicle access since March. 

***

In the year since the earthquake, things are the same, but different in Kaikōura. "Staff wanted" signs sit outside just about every business along the main street. Many seasonal workers have chosen the long hours and high pay of offered by the rebuild company, while others, who would normally take jobs as wait staff, hairdressers and checkout operators, can't find accommodation. 

There are no rental properties advertised in Kaikōura on TradeMe. There are no flatmates wanted, either. 

A sign in the window of the local Four Square advertises a housing shortage drop-in workshop for November 6. "We don't have houses to offer, but we can work better for you if we know who needs what," the sign says.

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

"Right now there's a shortage of housing and accommodation in our district," the council's website reads.  

It puts this shortage down to five main factors: Residents needing houses due to earthquake damage and increased competition for rentals; local businesses needing accommodation for workers; tourists needing accommodation; rebuild workers needing accommodation; and returning residents or 'new locals' wanting to move to Kaikōura.

In the 12 months to August 2017, the average weekly rent in the town increased by 11 percent. Over that same period, Auckland rents increased by 4 percent, closer to the average increase for the country as a whole, of 4.7 percent. Average house values in Kaikōura increased by 9.5 percent according to QV data over the period. In Auckland, house prices increased by 10.4 percent. (REINZ, however, puts Kaikōura's median house price increase up 2 percent on the previous year compared to Auckland's 5.5 percent increase.)

Along State Highways One and Seven - the inland road that connects Kaikōura to the rest of the country - thousands of workers operate heavy machinery, fly helicopters back and forth, abseil up cliffs, herd the seals that breed at Ohau Point, or stand for hours with stop/go signs, inhaling the dust swept up by the prevailing north-westerly wind. 

At South Bay, fishing boats sit high and dry, while diggers dredge sand and stone from the new marina (due to open today,) loading debris into the first of a never-ending line of trucks.

The town's permanent resident population of 2080 has increased by an estimated 30 percent with the rebuild, led by Government owned company NCTIR (North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery, pronounced "nectar" by locals,) an employer of thousands.

Many of these new workers come from out of town, and need places to stay. A prefabricated village built on the edge of townhouses 300 of them. Neon "no vacancy" signs flicker outside hotels and motels, utes fill carparks and woollen work socks stuffed in steel cap boots sit on doorsteps.

***

Kayden Manawatu.

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

On a Tuesday evening at the mouth of Lyell Creek, in the town's centre, Kayden Manawatu, 15, is fishing for whitebait. In spring, the tiny fish swim upstream from the ocean, and into his net. He uses a cut plastic bottle to scoop them into a ziplock bag. When he gets home, they go straight into the frying pan with egg and salt. 

The town where Kayden grew up has changed a lot since the earthquake. Instead of buses full of camera-toting tourists, road workers and engineers wear high vis and hardhats, and drive utes with orange flashing lights. It's two hours from high tide, and the rock he is standing on at the mouth of the creek used to be the low tide mark.

If you follow Lyell Creek upstream through town, you'll come to Kayden's old house. On the night of the quake, the bank collapsed, and a large crack formed across the lawn and under his dad's bedroom. Kayden says finding homes is the biggest post quake struggle that locals face.

"A couple of my cousins had to move out of their rentals - they needed to be fixed after the earthquake and then they went to NCTIR workers." 

Others have moved to Christchurch, he says. 

"We were lucky that my grandma moved to Christchurch 'cause we bought her house off her. Others weren't so lucky."

That evening, as we say our goodbyes, Kayden invites us to come to his cousin Kaea's house for breakfast the following morning. 

***

There are good and bad outcomes for Kaikōura locals after the earthquake. Overall, the attitude seems to be 'just get on with it'.

Businesses relying on tourist money, like Southern Paua Factory, are struggling. But owner Brian O'Connor, who is also a pastor at the local church, has taken on a second job as a "wellbeing guy" - a counsellor of sorts - for NCTIR. 

For some accommodation providers, the influx of workers had been a boon. It's hard to find a place to stay if you don't book well in advance, and the owner of one motel tells us this year has been her busiest so far. 

That's not the case for everyone, though.

Anchor Inn owner Paul Meike, 60, and his wife moved to Kaikoura about two and a half years ago.

"We came here for a holiday and stayed in room nine. My wife says 'this place is up for sale. I wanna move here.' We thought about it, went back to Melbourne, sold up and came back. 

"That took us about nine months to get everything sold up. And yeah - we came back and bought it. And then we had the earthquake."  

The Anchor Inn
The Anchor Inn

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless


The Anchor Inn has been closed for a year. Insurance runs out today. Paul walks around the motel's fenced off perimeter, past sinkholes that opened up on the night of the quake and have now caved in on themselves. Pieces of pink batts lie on the lawn, as workers paint and hammer and drill around him. 

"The workers have only been at the motel about three weeks... I would have liked to have been open by now, same as the Boutique Hotel up the road. But no, we're not opening 'til next year - the first of January - which is a bit of a shame," Paul says.

"It's been a struggle, I had to go and get another job to get by, pay the bills. Lucky in town here there's plenty of work going on. They're screaming out for staff..." He drives a bus for NCTIR workers now.

As we chat, he wells up. He loves it in Kaikōura - one of his 16-year-old dogs is named after the town. He doesn't want to leave. But he's struggling.  

"Time is just a killer. You think, what have you done for the last eleven months. You sit here. Sit over there. Sit over there. Walk along the beach with the two little dogs. Yeah. Just filling in your day."

Later that evening, long after we've left the Anchor Inn, a bus drives past and gives us a toot - it's Paul dropping workers home from town.

WATCH LOCALS INCLUDING PAUL, KAEA AND BRIAN AND THEIR BEAUTIFUL DOGS:

***

It's early on a Wednesday morning, and Kayden's already been out fishing again. He's cooking up whitebait fritters at his 10-year-old cousin Kaea Hole-Eruera's house, before they head off to school. 

A year ago, when the earthquake struck just after midnight, Kaea woke up to the sound of smashing glass. Her bed was shaking and the dog was barking. Like many other Kaikōura residents, they thought there would be a tsunami. They got in the car and drove to Kaea's grandma's house up the hill. About 15 family members were there - cousins, aunties, uncles. 

In the days following the quake, a Ngai Tahu Tourism helicopter delivered kaimoana to Kaikōura's Takahanga marae, and the thousands of tourists and residents trapped in the town feasted on crayfish. On its way out, the chopper evacuated whānau - including Kaea, who spent two months living with her father out of Christchurch. 

When she came back, the town she grew up in had changed. There weren't many kids at school, and she struggled. Most nights, she cried herself to sleep. 

"It's a bit different because the beaches are lower ... There's not that many crayfish and paua and kina and all that seafood anymore."

In September this year, when a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck near Invercargill, Kaea was scared. "We thought it was probably going to get bigger, like the other earthquake." 

Before we leave Kaea's home, we get a feed of whitebait fritters. Kaea's mum gives us her friend Johnny Clark's phone number - she says he'll be good to talk to. 

Kaea Hole-Eruera.

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

***

In the days following the quake, Johnny and his family lived off the land. For a while, they used a generator to power their freezer full of meat, but then that stopped working so they took everything into town.

The Clark family homestead stood on the property at Rakautara for 108 years.

"She's all ripped down now," Johnny says. "Hopefully we'll be able to rebuild here." 

The fruit trees that surrounded the wooden house - avocado, apricot, plum, apple, lemon, cherry, pawpaw - now surround piles of rubble. The hot water cylinder that almost marred Johnny's escape sits in the centre of the site. A fish bin filled with smashed jars of preserved fruit, a pink razor in a pile of broken concrete, a barbeque in the bushes, a chain and tyre swing, damp couches, chairs and books and a porcelain toilet all indicate that this place was once a beloved family home. 

At the front of the property, a greenhouse is planted with strawberries, passion fruit, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce. Johnny grew tomatoes on 58 plants the year before the earthquake, and sold them at Nin's Bin, for "cheap as". This year, Rodney has taken charge of the vegetable growing, since Johnny's living in town.

Before they moved to the house next door, the Clark family lived in their shed. It's full of cars: there's a Ford Model T, a 1937 Ford coupe ("she's a real nice looking car"), and "rat-rod," which is actually made out of two cars. Until the earthquake hit, the vehicles were a hobby for Johnny and Rodney. They'd find old rust-buckets in paddocks and do them up. Johnny shows us a video of him doing a burnout. 

"When we're not fishing we'd muck round with cars. But after the earthquake that's gone on the back burner because there's lots of other stuff to do," he says. 

He hands us a cray when we say goodbye. 

Johnny Clark at home in Rakautara.

Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

 



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Susan Strongman is an Auckland-based journalist at The Wireless. She is interested in social issues, human rights and people, but likes to spend her spare time with her cats.
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