Surviving in Waiau: the forgotten town closest to the NZ quake epicentre
Residents, many now homeless, have been looking after each other as relief efforts and media focus on tourist town of Kaikoura
17 November, 2016
As rescue helicopters fly overhead, Brenda Smith sits outside her ruined Waiau tea shop smoking a cigarette, nodding at locals who drive past in battered cars to homes that are no longer habitable.
Since Monday, Smith has had no electricity, no phone and little sleep. She has lost NZ$50,000 (£28,000) worth of stock and is rapidly running out of patience.
“Even though we were closest to the epicentre it has never been about Waiau; it is all about Kaikoura,” said Smith, who has operated her tea shop for almost a decade.
“Kaikoura is a destination, people know Kaikoura. Just because we aren’t known doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be. It is just frustrating … the prime minister could have visited us. [The former All Blacks captain] Richie McCaw did.”
Waiau, in north Canterbury, is home to 280 people. Its name means flowing water in Māori. And flowing water has been the community’s main concern these last couple of days, after unstable bridges over the grey Waiau river made road access impossible for relief vehicles, or residents wanting to leave.
Although located only 80km (50 miles) south-west of Kaikoura – where a massive relief operation is under way – people in Waiau feel they have been left to fend for themselves.
Since the 7.5-magnitude quake, food supplies have been salvaged from the collapsed pub and Smith’s tea shop. An elderly woman’s oxygen bottle has been hooked up to a farm generator to keep her alive.
About 200 people who no longer have a place to call home are camping on the grass beside a primary school playground.
“I have been surprised by how long the response has taken,” said Pam Stikkelman, sitting on a biscuit-strewn sofa at the school, where residents have been convening for meals.
Stikkelman, her husband and 11-year-old autistic son moved to Waiau in search of stability and a peaceful refuge after living through the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. She is leading the town’s domestic welfare effort from the school.
“The Christchurch [earthquake] was so different,” she said. “We had all the response people come really quickly then, they were basically operating within a few hours. But here we have felt really cut off.”
Stikkelman said her son shook her awake a few minutes before midnight on Sunday, screaming that he was terrified and something bad was coming. A few minutes later the quake hit.
“I am feeling a strong sense of deja vu. I want a glass of wine, but I think it would make me burst into tears. Adrenalin is the only thing we’ve got to keep us going.”
Initial estimates by surveyors flown in to inspect the damage to the town suggest at least 15 buildings may have to be demolished, leaving as many as half of the residents facing an uncertain future.
Opposite the primary school, the Waiau fire station is organising relief expeditions to isolated farms.
Volunteers gathered at the station barely 20 minutes after the quake and by 2am they had a barbecue cranking out sausage sandwiches and were pushing hot, sugar-loaded tea into the hands of stunned residents.
The fire chief, Hugh Wells, said he realised the community would need to mobilise rapidly because help would not be arriving any time soon.
“I basically thought, if we are this bad, how bad is the rest of New Zealand? We need to be ready to feed and look after ourselves for a couple of days, at least, before help kicks in,” said Wells, his eyes bloodshot with fatigue.
“We haven’t really started getting any help till today. It has been very frustrating watching all the reporters flying around taking pictures from the sky but not landing to help us or see if we are OK.”
Back at Smith’s tea shop, the kitchen hot water cylinder had sprung a leak, and Smith and her assistant Erica Bolton were trying to stem the flow.
A retiree, Paul Newberry-Johnson, who came to the tea shop for a can of soft drink (his purchase is recorded in a notebook, no money is exchanged) showed the two women how to shut off the water mains and manage the flood.
His home was one of those destroyed in the quake. He said he may move into Bolton’s spare caravan while he rebuilds.
“The building inspectors didn’t even bother going into my home, they just put a red sticker on it which means it’s totalled, destroyed,” he said.
As Bolton and Newberry-Johnson walked to the picnic tables to discuss his accommodation, Smith ran her eyes over the remains of her shop, her cash register stuck open.
“It is fine and dandy to look after the tourists and get them out … but what about the people that have to live in it?”