Insight: Earthquake: Surviving 7.8

From Insight, 8:12 am on 20 November 2016

Phil Pennington and Tim Graham share the stories and events from the first days of the 7.8 earthquake that ripped the land apart, caused massive slips, cut off Kaikoura and towns nearby and severely damaged homes and farms

We stood in the car park of the Kaikoura Caves Tours and Cafe on Monday evening as yet another violent aftershock from the 12.02am magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit with a bang, sending ripples across its plastic-roofed veranda.

I was thankful it was not made of glass.

The car park was deserted apart from our RNZ News team of three - Rebekah Parsons-King, Tim Graham and myself.

We had our laptops on the bonnet of a borrowed ute (big ups to Bob Dronfield) trying and failing, and trying again, to send interview audio out using the town's damaged mobile phone towers. Trying to tell the stories of the quake.

State Highway 1, in front of the cafe, was deserted too, on a mild late spring evening at the start of Kaikoura's tourist season.

small baby in car seat sits between adults on a helicopter floor

Children getting taken out of quake damaged Kaikoura by helicopter Photo: ( Supplied / Defence )

I stood on the highway's centre line.

To the south, around the bend, was the aerodrome we had choppered into. Opposite it, hidden by trees from the road, was the Elms Homestead where Louis Edgar, 74, died and his 100-year-old mother, Margaret, was trapped.

We saw the flattened homestead from above, the most visible sign of destruction in a town that, from the air, looked strangely normal flying in.

The approach was anything but normal: just south of the Clarence River, we looked down to see the lanes of SH1 no longer lined up by roughly 3m.

It got worse: An orange clay slip the height of a 10-storey building and looking entirely immovable had torn the railway track off. It petered out on the rocks. Returning by helicopter on Wednesday, a yellow digger at the base of another slip looked like a Tonka toy.

It struck me then, the courage of road workers trying to restore a lifeline to Kaikoura in the shadow of unstable cliffs and aftershocks.

A Defence helicopter nears the home of a Kaikoura Family

Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

On the Tuesday, we were back at the Cave Cafe. We got lucky getting some better internet access than at the hospital, where tourists on screens used all the bandwidth on the health board's public wifi.

Owner Geoff Pacey was there this time, with his wife and daughter, who should have been in an NCEA exam, but now must on her merit passes.

He offered us a table to work at. He would have offered us a coffee, but there was none. No coffee, no power, no water - and possibly no work in times to come.

"Well, it's finished for summer already," he said. "Earthquake's just stopped everything ... no tourists, no business, no staff now - it's pretty hard on my staff,  because if no-one's coming in the door I can't employ my staff".

"Same in the pāua industry, until the roads are open we can't get the product in or out."

Geoff smiles as he shows me a video a pāua diver has sent him of stranded shellfish on jacked-up rocks, drying and dying in the sun.

The Defence Force evacuate a woman and child from Kaikoura

The Defence Force evacuate a woman and child from Kaikoura Photo: SUPPLIED: NZ Defence Force

Across the road from the cafe, South Bay was calm and shimmered. The seabed is half a metre closer to the surface than it was. Two days later, HMNZS Wellington would confirm this ahead of the arrival of the much larger naval ship Canterbury.

The fishing fleet pulled up close to underground fuel tanks. They could not be refilled until the cracked and broken SH70 to Culverden reopened.

The four Whale Watch catamarans rested on their bottoms at low tide, for the first time.

The drastic geological shifts of early Monday imposed a new normal for Kaikoura and its people. It cannot be reversed.

A tourist town that needed the tourists to leave, to lessen the pressure. Now they have, who knows when they will be back.

The locals have stayed, though some are too nervous to go back to their homes.

Shops will gradually re-open on West End. Insurance will replace the broken plate glass windows and ruined stock, but it cannot replace the lost foot traffic.

Mark Solomon in his wrecked home near Kaikoura

Mark Solomon in his wrecked home near Kaikoura Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

Mark Solomon lives 4km out of town up Mt Fyffe Road, where damage to the water main drained the town's reservoirs. He does not want to return to the large home he shared with 15 members of his family. Its slab floor is stuffed.

"But I think it doesn't matter where the land is, it just matters that the people that you are with, are with you."

"Kaikoura is a beautiful place, a beautiful community and I think the community will rally. We are strong. There's a lot of old families here, they form a foundation. When you have been through that sort of quake your natural instinct is to look for a house to build upon a rock."

That is what he intends to do.

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