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The town of Kaiapoi was fair walloped by the first Canterbury earthquake in 2010. A decade after disaster, Frank Film returns

It was the first Canterbury earthquake which fair walloped Kaiapoi. On Saturday September 4, 2010, New Zealanders woke to incredible images of upended and broken homes and distraught residents.

A decade after disaster, it’s hard to argue with community advocate Chris Greengrass when she says Kaiapoi “keeps bouncing back better and better.”

As with many small towns in New Zealand, there are empty shops for lease in Kaiapoi’s main street but there is also a real sense of purpose and vibrancy in the North Canterbury settlement, 20 minutes north of Christchurch.

When Frank Film’s *Changing South*crew visit, the town’s cafes are busy, families are strolling the river walkway and there’s a constant stream of traffic through the town centre.

There’s been a lot to bounce back from.

Over a 20-year period Kaiapoi faced the closure of its famed woolen mills and its freezing works - the town’s biggest employer. Both closures came after the construction of the northern motorway, which took State Highway One away from Kaiapoi’s main street.

Then, in the early hours of September 4, 2010, Kaiapoi’s worst disaster, ever. 

In a terrifying forty second ordeal, one fifth of the town’s housing stock was destroyed and one third severely damaged, in what would be the first in a series of devastating earthquakes to hit Canterbury.

As day broke, images of up-ended homes and incredible stories of survival would shock the nation. Disbelief at the scale of the devastation matched only by amazement at no loss of life.

Many residents found themselves homeless and essential services were lost to much of the town.

The Waimakariri District Council, headed by Chief Executive Jim Palmer, led the recovery effort. 

Simon Markham, who worked in a policy position for council had been appointed Recovery Manager, in the event of an emergency, just three weeks prior to the earthquake. 

Community Team Leader, Sandra James, was recruited to the role of Social Recovery Manager and Jude Archer, already working in the local community, headed the Earthquake Support Service.

James and Archer have since co-authored a book, Social Recovery 101, to share their learning and the success of a recovery effort which has been heralded locally and internationally.

James says Jim Palmer had a saying  “we won’t be measured by the kilometres of roads and pipes that we replace but by how our people come through this.”

Palmer adds “we told them everything honestly and upfront from day one.”
In the weeks after the disaster an Earthquake Hub was established in the town.

Church and community groups cared for the people and, according to Jude Archer, “there was a lot of trust between council and community, the sense of we’re all in this together.”

Today, two thirds of those who lost their homes, many due to red-zoning, still live in the town. New subdivisions have been fast-tracked and the ‘red zone’ is home to sports fields, native plantings and a BMX track.

Kaiapoi has always been a town with a river running through it but, in 2020, it is becoming a true river town. As with Christchurch, the town’s stunning, natural feature had become its most undervalued asset.

Both places are finally realising what economic and social benefits their respective waterways can offer.

“We’re trying to make Kaiapoi River a focal point,” says Palmer, “making use of the fabulous vista .. and attracting business which wants to make use of it.”

Chris Greengrass says “the earthquakes gave us permission to do things that we’d often thought about but never got round to doing.”

The new facilities at the Northern Bulldogs Rugby League club, built after a herculean fundraising effort, are testament to that silver lining, and to Kaiapoi’s resilience.