The view from the picture window of 24 Ward Street, on the northeast tip of the peninsula, is absolutely spectacular.
It is the same image that originally lured my wife, Kate, a GP, and I from our home in Florida to Kaikoura: sheep grazing in a lush green paddock; the multi-hued waters of the north bay, home of paua and crays, from which the town gets its name; and the high, steep-sloped, snow-capped mountains of the Kaikoura Ranges rising up from the New Zealand coastline.

In all our travels, nothing compared to our new home.

It was a place of rose-red, orange, and magenta sunrises, sunsets and, on a clear night, it was a stargazer’s dream, high above the city lights with a sky full of twinkling stars and the rich white glow of the Milky Way. By all definitions of the word, Kaikoura is a paradise, a haven for seabirds and marine life. Because of the upwelling of nutrients from the deep canyon that probes close to shore on the south side of the peninsula, Kaikoura is home for fur seals, petrels, albatrosses, and whales.

Sperm whales were the local attraction, but it was not unusual for one to spot humpbacks, right whales, orcas, and even an occasional blue whale as they migrated up and down the coast.  To the north at Ohau, seal pups would play in a pool of water below a waterfall, a magical place that was gaining popularity with the tourists as a result of numerous documentaries.

The people of Kaikoura are a highly creative, generous, stoically-independent lot with a strong sense of community pride. I am not sure if it is just a Kiwi characteristic, maybe that of South Islanders, or just that of the smaller rural towns, but everyone seems to volunteer for something. St John, the ambulance service; the fire department; and the Coast Guard are all staffed by volunteers. Two Lions Clubs and numerous social clubs tend to the walking tracks, chop fire wood for those in need of a warm fire in the winter, and even put on some of the most creative social events that I have ever seen. Even the local theatre is staffed by community volunteers.

Everyone looks out for his or her neighbor and they certainly did that for us. Whether we were walking along the shops of the commercial district or shopping at the supermarket, it was not uncommon for someone to come up or call out our name and strike up a conversation with us. Numerous times, we would hear a knock at our door and be greeted with fresh crays or fruits and vegetables from our neighbours’ gardens.
In my previous life – back in Florida – I was a member of the West Jacksonville Rotary Club. For over 10 years I had been involved with water and sanitation projects, primarily in the Dominican Republic and a member of WASRAG, Rotary’s action group focusing on water and sanitation.

Concurrently, I was very involved with youth, having hosted around 12 students, as well as being the Latin America co-ordinator of Rotary Youth Exchange Florida (RYE Florida). Every year, I would preach to my new crop that, in order to have a successful exchange, they had to immerse themselves into not only the culture, but the community itself. And, as many of them would attest to, I would live vicariously through them, and cajole them to maximise their time through emails and Facebook. Well, now it is my time. I am the exchange student. It was time for them to live their lives vicariously through me. Therefore, it was my turn to be immersed into the community.

Since the closest Rotary club was an hour and a-half away in Blenheim, I joined the Kaikoura Lions Club whose members accepted me in spite of my being ‘from the other side’. Since Kate was incredibly busy at the clinic and had to ‘pull call’ a number of nights during the week, I joined St John to work on the ambulance as a first responder. Because the community cherished its natural beauty and respected its native species, I volunteered to work at the Ohau waterfall, for the Department of Conservation, protecting the seal pups from the tourists and vice versa, while Kate and I rescued Hutton’s shearwaters that would crash along the town streets at night as they flew from their mountainside nests to their rafts on the ocean. I even took up lawn bowling at the Takahanga Bowling Club, woke up early in the morning to go to the Adelphi Pub and cheer on the All Blacks as they beat the Wallabies, and joined the local tramping club – all for the purpose of becoming a true Kiwi. It was for that reason, and because it was on my bucket list, that I made plans to tramp the Milford Track with my good friend, Richard Collison, and his wife, Alessandra, on November 9, the preface to a very fateful day.

The four-day tramp of Milford was both glorious and, well, physically challenging. We tramped up and down rather steep slopes, some portions rather treacherous due to debris fields of trees and boulders; around avalanche-prone areas, listening to the sudden gunshot-like crack of the avalanche beyond; and passed incredible waterfalls and cascading rivers. On the fourth day, as I came out of the track at Sandfly Point, it would be safe to say that I was a little leg-weary. I also was suffering from a common tramper malady: both of my large toenails were jammed, and blackened due to being constantly pushed by the toe of my boot, as I descended down the mountainside. But, I had come safely through. I clambered into the boat that took me to a shuttle on the other side from which I got into a bus that would eventually take me from Milford to Queenstown. It was my intention to grab a flight from there and meet up with my wife in Christchurch where we would drive back to Kaikoura, just in time for the party her medical clinic was having on our behalf.

“The best laid plans of mice and men...”

When I finally arrived at Queenstown Airport I found that all of the flights had left for the day, but that was not really a problem because I still could get a room and catch a morning flight. Little did I know that there was a very popular automobile race in Cromwell, which meant all the hotels and hostels were fully booked. Not to be dissuaded, I took all of this as just another slight inconvenience and convinced myself this would be just like my flying in and out of airports on the way to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, or Guyana as I worked on water projects. I am used to a little inconvenience from long layovers. So ... I inflated my tramping pillow and stretched out on the seats airport terminal and fell into a deep sleep.

Around midnight, I was jostled awake by an airport employee and informed that I had to leave the airport due to the fact that it was closing for the evening. Looking at my haggard disposition, she must have had pity on me, which led her to inform me that only 300m away was a 24-hour McDonald’s, which would let me stay all night ... if I would purchase something. So I put on my backpack and tramped into the night, looking for those golden arches so that I could purchase a rather dry Quarter-Pounder, re-inflate my pillow and lay my head on the table to get some much-needed sleep.

At 6.30am, I woke up, tramped back to the airport, bought a detox juice from the juice bar, and waited for my 11.30am flight out of Queenstown. Kate was a welcome sight in Christchurch. She met me at baggage claim and then drove back to Kaikoura along State Road 1, through the Hundalees ... less than 12 hours before a certain geological event would transpire. We got home; I peeled off my clothes and took a hot shower while Kate threw everything in the backpack into the laundry and fumigated my tramping boots. By 4.30pm we were at the planned barbeque get-together. True to the Kaikoura spirit, there were crays and sausages on the grill, with plenty of sides. And, in keeping with the spirit of the area, there was also beer and some pretty good Marlborough wine. Needless to say, by 9.30pm, my body was shutting down and I was looking forward to a long, well-deserved rest in my own soft, warm bed back at home and, by 10pm, that is exactly what I was preparing to do.

At 12:02 am, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck approximately 60km southwest of Kaikoura, near the town of Culverden. While the earthquake started there, it progressed northwards at 2km per second over a length of about 200km, rupturing at least six faults. Portions of the Kaikoura seabed were lifted 2m along the coast, forming a new shoreline.

So, 24 hours after being jostled awake at the airport in Queenstown, I was again rudely awakened. This time, the whole bed was a nighttime version of a mechanical bull, moving every which way in an attempt to throw off its occupants. Smartly, Kate called out to me for instructions on how best to handle the situation. “Do we get on the floor; go into the bedroom closet, or run outside?!” My mind quickly assessed the situation (after all, I am an architect): our house is constructed of brick veneer on wood frame that can handle the flexure of the quake. “Wake me up when the shaking is over ... I am too tired to get out of bed!” One hundred and twenty seconds, two minutes, can seem like an eternity during a quake, but I held fast.

Timing is everything. Less than a month prior to the quake, Civil Defence had a table outside the front door of the supermarket aimed at educating the community on what to do in the event of a tsunami. As a result, a large number of people congregated along the front of our house, high up on the peninsula, waiting for that possible event to happen, and it did. A tsunami wave of over 2m high was generated by the quake. But, again, timing is everything. The quake occurred during low tide so the impact was not even significant.

Timing also played a role with regards to casualties. Because the quake occurred late in the night, there was hardly any traffic on the main highways. Given the amount of damage that occurred along State Highway 1 and the inland road through collapsed bridges, heaved roads, and significant slips, casualties could have been a lot worse if the quake occurred during the daylight hours (remember, I was traveling on that road passing through the Hundalees only 12 hours earlier).

Kate grabbed a ride to the medical clinic and, along with other health care providers and first responders, began a long night addressing the needs of the community: primarily trauma injuries as a result of fixtures, furniture, and people being thrown around, as well as cuts from broken glass. By morning it was learned that all roads leading in and out of Kaikoura were compromised. The twin tunnels to the south were buried along with a major slip at Ohau Point to the north. We were isolated, a scenario that was discussed in meetings with St John but, for me, never seen as an actual probability.

Though my neighborhood on top of the peninsula was spared, those living in the valley below, where the soil was softer and more pliable, were not so fortunate. Roads heaved, bridges failed, and houses were structurally compromised. The Elm Estate, a two-storey, masonry and concrete structure, and one of the area’s older homes, collapsed crushing Louis Edgar, one of the community’s beloved citizens. Power poles were tossed about and appeared to march in a drunken stupor along the roads. The main line to the water tank, high up on the peninsula, broke as well as water and sewer lines that were buried along the street. Because the sea bed rose, the boats for Whale Watch and Dolphin Encounter were aground at the marina and the very crays and paua that the town was famous for were left high and dry to bake in the morning sun.

As dawn greeted the residents of Kaikoura, neighbours were conducting their own welfare checks making sure that friends and family were okay and tending to needs. Because power was out during the initial hours of the quake, it was not uncommon to see individuals going door to door to offer food from their freezer to their neighbours. Since it had a generator, the medical clinic was not only with electrical service, but had wi-fi, too. Once the word got out, tourists, anxious to connect with family members back home, began crowding the front of the centre, busy texting emails, while others surfed the internet. Soon, the park in front of the centre became an ad hoc campground packed with tents and caravans. Up the road, the town cemetery became the alternate campground. Over 700 tourists were left stranded in Kaikoura. The community reached out to them, opening their homes and offering a warm meal. Allister McNaughton, of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, opened the parsonage and sanctuary to those needing food and shelter. Soon, volunteers of the Takahanga Marae, located just behind the medical centre, began cooking ‘survival dinners’ consisting of grilled crays for those in need of a decent meal. Members throughout the community made sure that no-one was left wanting, sharing food, shelter, and supplies.

Though, in looking back, everything seems like a blur, it did not seem like it took much time before the rest of the nation came to Kaikoura’s rescue. An area in the park, fronting the clinic, had to be cleared so that air ambulances from Christchurch and Nelson could land. Private helicopters, whether local or from outside the community, began to fill the air as they conducted welfare checks throughout the surrounding countryside. First responders from St John, the Red Cross, Civil Defence, and others began flying into the local aerodrome. Murray Hamilton, of Air Kaikoura, began shuttling people and supplies in and out of the town, paying particular attention to community members in need. Soon, naval vessels from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States were cruising the bays of the peninsula and offering their helicopters to move supplies into the town.

During the first three days, I worked night shifts with St John. During the late afternoon and early evening, we conducted welfare checks throughout the community. In one instance, we went up Mt. Fyffe Road to check up on an elderly couple that had not yet reported in. As we walked up the drive, we noticed that the chimney of the wood-clad house had collapsed and that there was a tarp covering the hole in the roof. After being invited inside by the elderly couple it was hard not to notice that the structure had been given a fairly good shake. Jars, bottles, books, personal memorabilia, cups and dishes had fallen off the shelves and were scattered ankle-high throughout the floor, cemented to the floor in a sticky ooze. “Don’t worry about us – we are quite alright and should be able to sort things out in a day or two. Our neighbour is just down the hill, and, since he uses the water from our well, we are sure that he will look after us,” the husband smartly stated. It would be a mantra that would be repeated over and over as similar welfare checks were conducted throughout the week: “Don’t worry about me, but do look after my neighbour, my friend, or my family member”.

As the days passed, more responders filed into the town. The tourists, after living in their makeshift villages, driving aimlessly around town, and stationing themselves in front of the medical centre to connect with the outside world through their smartphones became an issue that had to be dealt with. Aftershocks sent them scurrying, while the locals just gave each other that knowing look and lifted their drinks off the table so not to spill their precious contents. The HMNZS Canterbury was now anchored in the south bay waiting to take them on a scenic cruise to Lyttelton. Buses from Dolphin Encounter and Whale Watch queued up to whisk them away; keys to recreational vehicles were given to the police, and approximately 700 souls boarded the naval ship. By the next day, only a few stragglers, hoping to take their rented campers out the inland road once it opened, were left. The marae quit serving food; Red Cross, Civil Defence, and a number of other disaster relief agencies moved into the new town council building, and Kaikoura began to assess its needs for the long term.

Short-term needs were quickly and smartly addressed by the various agencies. Portaloos and chemical toilets were given out to the members of the community, along with bottled water. Fuel from the two service stations was rationed, giving priority to first responders.

The employees of New World, the one grocery store that was not damaged, gathered cans and packages that had been strewn all over their floor, placed them in stacks and trolleys, and quickly opened the doors to allow families the opportunity to restock their homes. Unfortunately, perishable stock such as milk and meat were spoiled.

I must confess that the impact of this was personally felt by me because, prior to the earthquake, I had invited just about everyone in the town to a surprise birthday party for Kate, which was to be on November 16. It was also a chance for us to say our goodbyes to the community that we loved, as we would be leaving for Blenheim so that Kate could begin her new job later that week. Melville and Julie Syme had volunteered their house and everyone, except Kate, was in on ‘our little secret’. It was going to be so large that the only way to be sure there was going to be enough food was to tell everyone that it was potluck.

The earthquake trumped the party. The following Sunday, the community had an interfaith service at Churchill Park. After the service, a number of people came up, either apologising for not being able to attend Kate’s party or mentioning that they did not get the message that the party was cancelled and went to the party only to see that no-one was there.

But, most of all, they came up to give us a hug and tell us that they were glad that we had not yet left the community.

Restaurants and cafes such as the Craypot, Whaler, and Pier, that were not yellow or red stickered, became community gathering places where folk congregated to share their anecdotes on the earthquake. The Pier, which generously provided food (dare I say, crays) at the medical centre where St John’s command centre was located, also served as a favourite gathering place for the first responders to hold meetings and social events. Because of the initial shortage of supplies, these establishments quickly offered ‘survival menus’ based on what was readily available. The supermarket, too, followed suit.

One day, while shopping for groceries, I noticed that the meat section, which earlier lay bare, was brimming from one wall to the other. Not believing my good fortune and quickly making note of various meals that I could now make, I made a dash to the cooler shelves only to find that, though it was brimming, there was only one selection ... sausages. No sooner than my visions of three-course meals had materialised, they were dashed by the reality of sausages and beans. Anton, of Hunting and Fishing, used his boat to get produce that was on the other side of the slips, blocking State Highway 1, to the town, so that a farmers’ market could be held in an open field adjacent to his store. Fresh tomatoes, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, along with free-range eggs, cheese, and pork were a welcome sight. Even Myra brought soaps from the Lavender Farm, while Mel sold her boutique wine. Earlier, a truck parked at Dolphin Encounter, gave out free yoghurt, hummus, and various spreads.
On Thursday, November 24, the Catholic Church held a memorial service for Louis Edgar. Because of the family’s affiliation with St John, Don Wright, the station manager, requested that the members attend in uniform as a tribute to Louis. I could not help but smile to myself as I gazed at his casket. In respect to his nature as a true South Islander, family members placed his tramping boots and homemade mountaineering pick on top. A fitting tribute.

How the residents of Kaikoura responded during and after the earthquake is also a fitting tribute to their resiliency and sense of community. They reached out not only to each other but also to almost 1000 visitors, tending to needs and making sure that everyone was looked after.
Personally, I cannot tell you how many times I received a visit or a phone call from neighbours, St John, Red Cross, or Civil Defence, just to make sure that I was okay. Meetings were held on a daily basis at Churchill Park, updating residents on the various issues of the day, as well as where to get help. But, in the end, it is really about neighbors looking after each other. In that, Kaikoura excels.

Kaikoura was looking forward to a robust tourist season. Businesses were expanding operations and new restaurants were opening. The Kaikoura earthquake changed everything. I met up with our good friend, Poppy, who informed me that she will be closing Cellar View, one of my favorite restaurants. The Adelphi, the pub where I woke up at 4.30am to see the All Blacks play the Wallabies for the championship, is scheduled to be torn down. Other buildings along the main commercial district might meet the same fate.

I guess that, by now, I should mention that, though I thought that I was going on sabbatical, I never really left Rotary. A very good friend of mine and fellow member of WASRAG, Steve Werner, informed Kiwi Rotarians that I was coming to New Zealand and before I knew it, I was asked to become a charter member of the new Rotary WASH E-club that was formed in Dunedin. As a result, a number of my Rotary friends and colleagues have called offering help. My usual answer to these inquiries has been that we are okay for the short-term. We were lucky. We did not have a large number of casualties, everyone is being looked after, and it is a very resilient community.

All that being said, what is really needed is help for the long-term issues that inevitably will come to pass. How can families get assistance to rebuild homes that were damaged; how can businesses, especially those that rely heavily on tourism, get back on their feet especially when access between those businesses and the tourists has been severely compromised? Is there a possibility of funding to assist in the repairs of the water and sanitation system damaged by the quake so that the community can focus on paying off the debt owed for the new medical centre and council building? These are the pressing issues.

One thing that I have learned through my life as a Rotarian is, because of the incredible network of Rotary, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished. Yes, we are very good at fundraising, but, just as powerful, is our ability to tap into an incredible treasure trove of talent and skill-sets.

Kaikoura is in need of such selfless service.
By Rob Overly | E-Club of WASH president-elect
Article dated: 27 January 2017

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