A year to forget . . .

16:00, Dec 21 2013
John Hickman
John Hickman and son Jordan, 14, beside one of the many trees that were blown down and a new fence.

People in the Awatere region would sooner forget much of 2013, with not one but two natural disasters causing havoc for them. Sven Herselman looks at how they are rebuilding their property and their lives as a new year approaches. 

It is four months since the severe earthquakes that shook Seddon and the wider Marlborough region, and almost six since the devastating winds ripped through the Awatere region, but the effects are still being felt by the community.

Farmers were worst hit and are still working hard to catch up with the repair work the two disasters caused.

According Top of the South Rural Support Trust co-ordinator Ian Blair, the huge effect of the wind storm on June 20 has been the biggest problem for farmers.

Wind raged through the area at devastating speeds, with the strongest gust clocked at 225kmh at a weather station near Ward. Hundreds of trees came down destroying fences, power lines and buildings, creating a huge mess to be cleaned up.

"It really hasn't been properly expressed just how badly it has affected the farmers," Mr Blair says.


"It really put a huge amount pressure on them because it caused so much damage to their farms.

"The earthquakes affected their homes, which just compounded on the problem."

Depression among farmers struggling to deal with the huge workload has been an area of concern for the trust and for other service groups working in the area.

Awatere Christian Joint Venture minister Dawn Daunauda says she was particularly concerned about a few of the farmers she had visited, some whom looked like they had aged five to 10 years.

Mr Blair says getting help for them to catch up on the extra work isn't always possible as health and safety regulations are a limiting factor. Farmers are also often reluctant to accept help, simply because it's not in their nature.

"They say they are OK and don't want to ask for help," Mrs Daunauda says.

"I would love to be able to have someone take over their work completely and give them a proper rest, but that isn't possible."

Concerns have been raised about an increase in domestic violence as farmers struggle to cope, but she believes this hasn't happened. But there is certainly potential for it both in the farming and more urban areas, she says.

The rural community is considered a resilient one, as is the case in most of New Zealand's farming areas, but there are always limits to what people can handle. A farmer's life is always a busy one, with the next big job always on the horizon.

"These guys don't work just eight hour days and it's often a seven-day-a-week job - the pressure can be huge," Mr Blair adds.

Things are starting to get back on track, though, says Taimate farmer John Hickman.

His farm, a few kilometres south of the Grassmere salt works, was hard hit by the storm and the quakes.

It was the wind that caused the biggest headache, Mr Hickman says.

"I had trees down, fences destroyed and water pipes uprooted. I also had a shed blown away and two badly damaged."

Dealing with the aftermath has been "one hell of a job" and there is still much to do, but he feels he has finally managed to get on top of things.

"I'm feeling a lot better about it now, but the earthquakes have made things even more difficult - they were terrible," he says.

His farm is close to the epicentre of the large quakes and took the full force of the 6.5 magnitude shake on July 21 and the swarm of strong aftershocks that followed.

There has also been more wind through the area since the storm. While they were not as strong, they still caused more headaches for farmers, he says.

He was fortunate to get some help when members of the Marlborough Nelson Sheep Dog Trial Association turned up. Their work was hugely beneficial and Mr Hickman says that he can't thank them enough.

A nother issue for farmers has been all the paper work created by the dam age as they deal with their insurance companies and the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

It is not something they enjoy, and negotiating all the red tape has been a compounding factor that frustrates the normally hands-on farmers.

Mr Blair says it's something that is outside their comfort zone.

Mr Hickman adds: "We've all had to do a lot of work with the EQC and insurance. It's the really fiddly part of this and is the real frustrating element."

Farmers are not the only people in the region affected by the disasters that hit within just two months.

Residents in Ward and Seddon suffered significant damage to their homes, businesses and to community buildings such as halls and churches during the earthquakes.

No major injuries were reported, but the psychological impact on the small communities has been huge.

Mrs Daunauda says life is returning to normal, with residents looking to put the year behind them as they repair their homes.

The area has a significantly high number of elderly residents, with support coming to them through Awatere Christian Joint Venture parish nurse Rachel Westenra. She took up the part-time position only at the beginning of the year, juggling it with her medical nursing job at the Churchill Trust private hospital in Blenheim.

The elderly community are managing well after the quakes, choosing to simply get on with their lives, Mrs Westenra says.

"They are very accepting of the situation from the start.

"I'm not sure why, maybe because they have more life experience than others. They were obviously just as frightened when it all happened as anyone else, but have just got stuck in and tidied their homes up," Mrs Westenra says.

The support groups that descended on the area have been a big factor in helping the residents recover. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were very active in the weeks immediately after the disasters, door knocking and helping clean up wherever they could.

A mayoral earthquake relief fund was set up and is still running, with donations still being received.

"Generally people are very accepting of the help and very grateful for it. I think the community as a whole really pulled together - it was good to see," Mrs Daunauda says.

This community spirit was clearly evident as the Anglican and Presbyterian parishes, that make up the Awatere Christian Joint Venture, and the Catholic church put their denominational differences aside to work together.

The Catholic church suffered the least damage and is being used by the Joint Venture church as a place of worship until the Presbyterian church building is repaired.

"We are starting work on the Presbyterian church on Friday and we are holding a combined carol service at a wool shed a little way up the valley on Saturday night. It's really great to see everyone together like this," she says.

The small amount of damage to the Catholic church was repaired this month when members of the two congregations got together for a working bee. Oasis Family Church pastor Ross Banbury, from Blenheim, also turned out to put his carpentry skills to good use.

"About 20 turned out. It was really nice to do it together," Mrs Daunauda says.

In true Kiwi fashion, help was forthcoming from outside of the region as well, with churches from around the country sending donations for the repair work.

The little Awatere Playcentre also saw generosity from outside the Awatere with an anonymous donor from Christchurch sending it a special care package. A playcentre in the city also sent a donation and a message of support.

The community has come a long way, but repair work will still be ongoing and lives are still being put back to normal.