The new normal

Eighteen months on, communities affected by the November 2016 earthquake are working together to heal.

It's an Autumn day at Seddon School and the students of Room Nine are learning what do in an emergency with a little help from Red Cross and a picture book called 'Kiri and the Emergency'.  

The school is one of several primary schools and early childhood centres across Marlborough that Red Cross visits to deliver its Kiri and the Emergency programme in an effort to make sure even the youngest whānau members are prepared for an emergency and to also help children keep calm during emergency situations.

For the students and staff, however, the programme is more than a theoretical exercise. Eighteen months after the November 2016 earthquake, scaffolding and temporary fences still surround a block of classrooms at Seddon School and a team of builders continues to work on repairing the quake damage.

Seddon felt the full force of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, but it's not just the buildings that bear the scars. Seddon School Principal, Tania Pringle, says children here are still showing signs of stress and anxiety.

"People think, after three or four months, oh, that event's over, and done and dusted," Tania says. "For people recovering, it’s a lifetime. It’s a new normal. It’s just how life is now. It’s not going to go back to one minute past twelve — this is just how it is."

Kiri and the Emergency complements other support systems, including mindfulness, music therapy and counselling, which are helping the school's students work through anxiety and stress, Tania says.

The book is also a useful resource outside of the classroom, for families trying to live with the ongoing impact of the quakes.

"We only have the children for six hours a day. Children will hold themselves together to come to school but their parents wear it, so being able to provide them with some tools and some resources has been really helpful. And parents really enjoy the storybook — it's a relatable thing and it’s really easy to use as a support."

Up the road in Blenheim, Marlborough District Council's Building Control Group Manager, Bill East, says the team has been extremely busy as they try to juggle earthquake repairs with the council's regular workload, a situation that involves dealing with the earthquake's physical and psychological impact. 

The stresses of rebuilding and repairing, combined with other factors such as road closures, mean that people in affected communities can often feel frustrated and anxious. To better support these people, last year Bill and his colleague Brendon Robertson completed Red Cross' Psychological First Aid Training.

A damaged house in Marlborough a few days after the 2016 quake.

The training provides an insight into people's behaviour as they cope with emergencies and stressful situations and teaches appropriate ways to support and work with them.

Brendon says the Psychological First Aid Training has been incredibly useful as the council team works to support the community through the rebuilds and repairs.

"It's 18 months now since the earthquake occurred. Through the course, we learned that the effects of an earthquake are long-lasting and therefore some of our clients today are still suffering psychological effects from the earthquake."

“There’s some quite specific issues with this recovery that this training has helped us understand too,” Bill adds.

“These people have had to stay on their damaged properties because, in a lot of cases, they’re rural; their business is where they live. These people are now getting ready to go into their second winter and their houses are still damaged. So you can imagine that, mentally, they’re not going to be in the best place. They’ve struggled now for 18 months.

"We have to support them and show that we understand what they're going through."

For Cheviot mum Michele Forrester and daughter Isabelle, this winter is looking a lot warmer, healthier and easier on the budget thanks to the Earthquake Hardship Support programme.

It was a different story in the months after the earthquake, when Michele noticed her power bills had doubled. She didn't realise it, but her hot water cylinder had been damaged during the quake and was leaking. Her house was hard to heat and she woke up every morning to find condensation dripping on the windows.

All of this had a big impact on Isabelle, who has underlying health problems.

"When Izzy was about six months old, she started getting bronchiolitis and tonsillitis and ear infections – and this all started during winter," Michele explains. “The cold in the house wasn’t helping. I had a heater on in her room 24/7.”

Michele was one of the people referred to Community Energy Action (CEA) after the quake. CEA, with support from Red Cross, has offered financial assistance to help people make their homes warmer and more energy efficient while they undertake quake repairs.

When the team arrived to assess Michele’s house, they discovered the quake-damaged hot water cylinder. They also found the house had minimal insulation and realised bathroom’s extractor fan was taking steam and moisture into the ceiling right above Isabelle’s room.

Now, their house has now been fully insulated, the hot water cylinder has been repaired and a heat transfer system to move heat from the fire throughout the house will soon be installed. The bathroom’s extractor fan will be adjusted to take moisture outside the house, instead of into the ceiling.

The alterations will be life-changing for the family, Michele says.

“I think it will make a huge difference for Izzy’s health and mine – I suffer from asthma as well. Instead of being sick every fortnight, we might be able to cut it down to a couple of times for the whole winter."

"There are too many people talking about what can't be done and not looking at what can be done. Let’s see what we can do."

The programme has enabled dozens of people such as Michele to undertake comprehensive repairs and afford to heat their house. But having a warm place to call home is not the only benefit from the programme, CEA chief executive Caroline Shone says.

"It's not just about giving money to people. It’s a bigger picture thing. People just feeling like people care is massive from a wellbeing perspective and this has a knock-on effect to health."

The CEA team have noticed differences in the ways people in Hurunui, Marlborough and Kaikōura are having to adapt after the earthquake. 

“In Christchurch, it was people living in cold, damp houses or damaged homes. Here, we’re seeing people living in containers. We’re seeing people living in makeshift barns and makeshift sheds.

“People in rural areas are stoic and robust. We have stoic farmers who just say 'she’ll be all right — you don’t need to worry about me’. It takes time for people to say ‘hey, we know of someone that needs your help’.”

Despite this, more than 400 referrals for the service have been received so far, and there have been plenty of success stories. There have also been some challenges along the way. 

Working with three different councils — and three different ways of reaching the community — has meant tailoring approaches to each region. The rural nature of the affected area, the damaged roads and ongoing roadworks and the distance between affected communities has also created extra work for the team.

"It's not insurmountable. The drive [motivation] to get to these people far outweighs the challenges," Caroline says.

"It brings people together. It's just a great community thing."

Inland from Cheviot, the Waiau community has used the earthquake as a reason to come together and grow. With support from Red Cross and local businesses, they have started a community garden where residents can help cultivate and gather fresh produce while spending time together.

Coordinator Jenny Holt started the garden with Natasha Duthie in an overgrown section in the centre of the township after struggling with the cost of vegetables.

"Vegetables were so expensive and there were a lot of people – including myself – who couldn't afford to buy fresh veg all the time for the family," Jenny says. “I just put the idea [of the garden] out there, just to gauge what reaction I would get, and it was really positive.”

Red Cross helped the community secure donated seedlings, provided a helping hand during the initial planting and put on a sausage sizzle for volunteers working in the garden.

Thanks to the community’s hard work, the once vacant lot now cultivates tomatoes, pumpkins, spinach, rhubarb, courgettes, a variety of herbs, fruit trees and currant bushes.

There are also plans to expand the garden to include chickens and a pizza oven, so Waiau residents can enjoy community barbecues.

“It brings people together. It’s just a great community thing,” Jenny says.

Over in Kaikōura, tourists have returned and the township is buzzing. Down on the beach, Māori Warden Kaikōura coordinator Aroha Boyd talks about what she's seen in the community in the months since the earthquake hit.

"Our rangatahi are a bit more anxious. It’s our rangatahi and our elderly — this is what concerns me."

Aroha is one of 12 Māori Wardens in the Kaikōura area, working out in the community on a daily basis. During the earthquake response, Māori Wardens and Red Cross team members went on outreach visits together, door-knocking in affected areas to check residents were doing OK.

This initial pairing has led to a permanent working relationship between the Māori Wardens and Red Cross members in Kaikōura.

The benefits of this relationship were highlighted earlier this year, when Cyclone Gita hit the upper South Island. As Gita made its way towards Kaikōura, Red Cross and the Māori Wardens worked together to open a welfare centre for tourists and whānau who needed a safe place to weather the storm. Māori Wardens took the lead with the centre, which was opened in Takahanga marae, while Red Cross provided blankets, emergency supplies and a few extra pairs of hands.

"It's really awesome to be able to do that. That's what it's all about — supporting each other."

But it's not just about emergency response. The two groups are now looking at other ways they can work together to help strengthen and support people in Kaikōura.

"Collectively, it’s good. Together we will be stronger," Aroha says.

Red Cross Kaikōura branch president Lorraine Diver agrees.

“It’s just been great working together,” she says. “We approach things in a similar way and can complement each other's strengths. It makes so much sense.

To help families feel safe again at home, Lorraine and Red Cross members in Kaikōura are helping people get better prepared for future emergencies. Red Cross has helped several communities in the area put together containers of communal emergency supplies, so if another disaster happens and roads are blocked, families will be able to access supplies immediately.

Red Cross is also continuing to help Kaikōura residents connect with others to support their psychological recovery. The Crafty Place, a group where older people can come to work on craft projects and share a chat, is proving particularly popular, Lorraine says.

Now, the branch is looking at new ways to reach people who might need a little extra support or who have been missed by other services.

"We're just doing what Red Cross does."

Learn more

To find out more about Red Cross' work in disaster response and recovery, head to our website.