In an emergency, the local supermarket becomes the centre of activity as people stream in to get urgent supplies like baby formula and bottled water – and to connect with their friends and neighbours. One year on from the Kaikoura earthquake, we asked the people who run the supermarkets in the region to reflect on the experience.

[Photo: Andrew and Kelly Whittleston, owner-operators of Culverden Four Square]

When the Kaikoura earthquake hit just after midnight on November 14, 2016, Andrew and Kelly Whittleston were the new owner-operators of the Culverden Four Square.

“We’d only been in this business for two weeks when the earthquake hit,” said Kelly. “Andrew was still getting his head around ordering and then he had that thrown at him and normal orders went out the window. Andrew coped really well and we got through.”

“At the time, it was disorienting – it felt like a truck drove into the house,” said Andrew. “Our house is on poles so it just swayed with the movement. We were lucky that our house wasn’t damaged. Overall, Culverden had very little damage, but we seemed to get a lot of media attention at the time. We were a hub for supplies being dropped off here by the army.”

“Our staff came in to help clear up the mess and it was all under control by the time the fire brigade arrived,” said Kelly. “We were pretty lucky to be open so quickly. It really became clear to us that the community needs you. The store becomes a place for people to come and tell their stories. They want to talk to people and connect – particularly the elderly or those who live on their own.

“It certainly showed us what a great community we had moved into. Everyone was so supportive, from our staff, the local fire brigade, the school and through to the council. Everyone worked together,” said Kelly. “In a way, it was nice to be busy. It didn’t sink in until a few days later.”

Supermarkets are in the blood of Kelly’s family. Her brother Glen Steele owns the New World in Kaikoura and was also busy dealing with the effects of the earthquake. “We were lucky that Mum and Dad [who live in Hanmer Springs] could take our three kids and Glen’s two kids as well,” said Kelly. “The adrenaline takes over. You manage to work big days on very little sleep.

“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that we got to meet everyone really quickly. An event like this really brings people together.”

With endless road closures on State Highway 1, the main road to Kaikoura is now the inland route, which takes the traffic through Culverden.

“There’s a lot more traffic, but I’m not sure that that means more business for us,” said Andrew. “People don’t necessarily stop on their way through. But we were so new here when the earthquake hit that it’s really all we’ve ever known. We won’t really know what’s normal until the roads are open.”

“The increased traffic is keeping the emergency services busy, unfortunately. There are a lot more crashes. There are lots of trucks on the road now, and the school’s on the other side so it’s a mission to get the kids across,” said Kelly.

“This has easily been the most stressful year of our lives so far. Before, we were working for wages, and now we’re responsible for a business and a community of locals as well as our family,” said Andrew.

“We had a large amount of our stock ending up broken on our floor but that aside we were pretty fortunate compared to many others in the area. We were open by about 9.30am and power was restored at about 10am,” said Kelly. “It was a rough few weeks which I would never want to relive but we figure if we can get through that we can get through anything.”

[Photo: Craig Smith, owner-operator of Henry’s Kaikoura]

Craig Smith has been the owner-operator of Henry’s Kaikoura for eight years.

“I woke up thinking something wasn’t right. I tried to stand up a couple of times and kept getting thrown back on the bed," said Smith.

“I checked on my family and then thought I’d better come and check on the shop. We live up on the hill, just a couple of minutes away. As I was driving down I kept seeing cars driving in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until I got to the store and opened the door and the waft of alcohol fumes hit me like a tidal wave… and then I suddenly realised why everyone was driving to higher ground. So I locked the door again and headed back up the hill!”

Craig had 1300 bottles of spirits that were smashed in the quake, creating quite a mess.

“For the first three days we had no water, so it was tricky to clean up all the sticky Baileys that was all over the floor.

“We found whole bottles of spirits underneath the shelves. There’s not room for them to roll under there, which makes me think the whole unit went up in the air and came down again on top of them.”

Smith said the wine shelves were thrown off their framing and the fridges had rolled into the centre of the room and formed a circle facing each other.

“We were closed for 11 days. The first nine days or so was just cleaning, then we had to wait for the engineer to clear the building. We were lucky. Our building was ok, it stood up to it pretty well.

“Civil Defence weren’t allowing orders of alcohol to come through, as it was deemed non-essential. We got down to the last couple of cases of beer before our new stock finally came through.

“It was a weird feeling afterwards with both roads closed, a bit like living on a small island because people couldn’t get to us.

“Thank goodness we’re Foodstuffs members. I’m not sure if we’d still be here if we had to fight for insurance on our own. It’s really hard to get tradies - everyone’s working on the roads. So there are still little things that need fixing.

“Staff retention has been really hard. People are working on the roads because they get paid more. This is my 17th day in a row. I’m working many more hours than I used to, because I can’t get the staff. People have to be properly certified to run the store, so I can’t just leave anyone in charge.”

[Photo: Glen and Mel Steele, owner-operators of New World Kaikoura, with their children Charlie, 7 and Josh, 4]

Glen and Mel Steele had been the owner-operators at New World Kaikoura for a year before the earthquake hit. Prior to that, they’d been at the Four Square in Hanmer Springs.

“We sent the kids [Charlie, now 7, and Josh, now 4] to their grandparents in Hanmer Springs. They had power and water there, whereas we had no water,” said Glen. “The first couple of weeks are a bit of a blur. Everyone just did what they had to do."

“It was a long day, from when the earthquake woke us up at midnight, to having the engineer here on the Monday and then getting access to the store at 4 pm that afternoon. We were open at 8 am on the Tuesday,” said Mel.

“In the first few hours, we had no communication. We knew that Foodstuffs had organised an engineer to come on a chopper, but with no communication we just had to drive around looking for the right chopper with an engineer on it. There were heaps of choppers landing at different sites around town,” said Mel.

“To begin with, we cleared an area around the checkouts and let people into that small area. There was a queue out the door, about 50 metres long. We just did our best to help people. Someone would ask ‘Have you got any…’ and someone would go and look for it. We were selling the basics - a lot of water, infant formula, bleach and nappies,” said Glen.

“Locals came in offering to help. They’d be packing groceries for other people,” said Glen. “Everyone got stuck in and did what they needed to do. Everyone wanted to help and our staff worked massive hours. People were running on adrenaline. We had to tell people to take their days off and stay home.

“We spent the first few days cleaning, taking down broken shelves and rebuilding shelving. We slowly increased the area of the store that was shop-able. When we didn’t have shelves, we began by using shopping trolleys and pallets. We’d stack product in the trolleys and line them up, and these became like aisles for people to shop from."

“Nothing came by road for the first week, but we got special deliveries from some of our suppliers. Ewing Poultry sent two deliveries of eggs by helicopter. Hellers sent us their products by helicopter and another delivery by boat, and Harris Meats sent several deliveries by plane. Word would get out that a delivery of meat had arrived and customers would come in to get some,” said Glen.

“After three days the adrenaline wore off, and then we needed the tissues. People still hadn’t showered. They were feeling uncertain about the future of the town."

“When they managed to get a Whale Watch boat out, and they saw whales out there, people felt better. That gave everybody hope that we’d still have a tourism industry,” said Mel.

“We didn’t get our water clearance until December 23. We couldn’t do any food preparation in store until we had that, so our service deli was closed for a long time. It was only in mid-December that we got clearance to bake using bottled water."

“We were really lucky that our house was fine. And it was good that the kids were away for a month and we could just focus on the store. Some of our staff were working long days and then going home to wrecked houses at night,” Mel says. “It was payday when the quake happened, so I worked with head office to make sure that people still got paid. The bank flew in change for us, and flew our cash out again,” said Glen.

There was a larger-than-usual military presence in New Zealand that week, for the 75th celebrations of the New Zealand Navy. The USS Samson, the Australian frigate HMAS Darwin and the Canadian frigate HMCS Vancouver were diverted to Kaikoura to help. Between them, the Samson, Darwin and Vancouver had four helicopters which were used to ferry supplies and people around the region. The New Zealand Navy sent HMNZS Canterbury, HMNZS Wellington, HMNZS Te Kaha and HMNZS Endeavour.

“It was a bit like MASH, with the frigates in the harbour and so many helicopters buzzing around,” said Mel. “The armed forces were brilliant. We had some Canadian guys come and fix our roller doors.

“We lost a couple of staff who left town, and a few who’ve chosen to go and work on the roads. It’s a struggle now to find new staff. There’s a shortage of accommodation, so even if we were to recruit from other areas, there’s nowhere for them to stay. With the busy Christmas period approaching, staffing will be a real challenge,” said Glen.

[Photo: Steph and Nick Thompson, owner-operators of Four Square Kaikoura]

Steph and Nick Thompson have been the owner-operators at Four Square Kaikoura for four years. They have both worked for some of New Zealand’s biggest corporates in the FMCG sector – Nick in marketing, and Steph in sales and category management. The couple met while working at Goodman Fielder.

“I was 8.5 months pregnant when we took over the store.  It was a great way to meet people. After the earthquake I increased my hours to full-time, because I had to. Half of our staff [four] were evacuated out and have not come back to us. Two are now working on the roads. Staffing is a massive issue at the moment. The average wage has increased by $5 or $6 and most locals are working on the roads. We are now working across six days. Accommodation options are non-existent, so you can’t even bring staff in as there’s nowhere for them to live,” said Steph.

“Our move here was about taking a step out of corporate life and having a change of scene. Steph’s family are in the South Island. We wanted our kids to have access to a lifestyle, including the stuff I grew up with in Gisborne, like learning to surf,” said Nick.

“We lost our windows at the front of the store and we can’t fix them because the framing is skewed. The foundations have shifted. We get leaks when it rains,” said Steph.

“The army were here for two days, bracing the wall of the stockroom.”

Unfortunately, the bracing that is holding up the wall takes up the entire stock room, so the Thompsons have very little storage space.

“We used to get deliveries through the back door, straight into the stock room. Now that we’ve lost our stock room, we are unpacking on the road out front and then it gets stacked in the aisles and unpacked straight onto the shelves. It takes about an hour and a half just to unload the truck, and will take longer in summer. It means we can’t order in bulk as we don’t have anywhere to store anything,” said Steph.

“When the earthquake hit we were living by the beach at South Bay, so we evacuated to the Civil Defence Centre with our 3-year-old and 10 month-old. They had no food or water at the centre, only blankets. People quickly figured out that we were from the Four Square and could help. We knew we’d just received a big order ready for Christmas, so we had lots of bottled water in the store. Nick went back to the store three times that night to get more water so that we could put on cups of tea and biscuits for the 300-odd tourists, to help keep them calm.

“All of our fresh food – our sandwiches, ham and that kind of thing – was ultimately donated to the Civil Defence efforts.".

“Customers might wonder what’s happening with our building. It isn’t owned by Foodstuffs and unfortunately, our landlord and their insurance company are in dispute, so we’re still waiting to understand the fate of our building, and for repairs to happen," said Steph.

“Kaikoura is more oriented to the tourist trade, so everyone has to make their money over the summer period. We have some major challenges ahead as a family and as business owners. Every business that folds is a blow to us all. It’s awful to see good families who were good business owners here having to leave town,” said Nick.

“The problem for businesses who need building repairs is there’s nowhere to go. In Christchurch, you could generally find somewhere to rent if you moved your business to a different suburb. But here, the whole town was affected,” said Steph.

Steph and Nick have done all they can to try and help their fellow business owners and the community. They proposed a container mall – inspired by the Re:Start container mall in Christchurch – which would give Kaikoura business owners somewhere to trade from while their buildings were under repair. Steph says it’s been an uphill battle to get this far, but she’s hopeful that the container mall will be operating in the main street before Christmas.

Steph also drove the local ‘knit bomb’, which has resulted in colourful yarn decorating the posts that are bracing the overhang at the front of the store. The playful creations are a talking point and are designed to lift people’s spirits.

The Thompsons also started a business association after the earthquake, to improve communication between business owners.

“Four Square has always been about community. We’ve upheld that tradition and tried to extend that spirit to the community,” said Nick.

[Photo: John and Annie Dawber, owner-operators of Four Square Hanmer Springs]

“We really dodged a bullet,” owner-operator of Four Square Hanmer Springs John Dawber said. “The centre of the earthquake was just 20km down the road from here, but the energy channelled down the fault line away from us, towards the coast.

“I was at the store within 10 or 15 minutes. My wife Annie was great. She took care of the kids so that I could come and check the store. There was a mess on the floor but the building held.

“I went back to bed,” Annie said. “We had a four-month-old and a 2-year-old. The 2-year-old didn’t even wake up. I just took the kids back to bed with me."

“Within 10 minutes, there were locals and tourists turning up at the store to give me a hand with cleaning up,” John says. “I knew that I had to get the doors open and give people a sense of normality really quickly.

“Our neighbour is the fire chief. My car was in the garage and the door wouldn’t open, so he brought me into town. By 5 am we had cleaned up the mess and I was home again.

“We were pretty much the only store open the next day. A few people were doing coffees. We were proud to be open and serving the community. On the second day, we got busy as people started to come into town. For the first 24 hours there wasn’t much news, so we were planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

“Any nervousness we had was around how vulnerable the road was.

“To begin with we put limits on a few things. We didn’t want people panic buying. If your shelves are empty, that tends to make people panic a bit more.

“I used the community Facebook page to let people know what was happening, for example, it’s one loaf of bread per customer today, but we’ll have more tomorrow.

“We didn’t get too low on stock. Our orders started turning up by truck as soon as the road was open.

“We learned how important supermarkets are in communities. The thought of not being able to get food makes people panic,” John said.

“I’ve worked for Foodstuffs for 16 years. I started out as an apprentice butcher at New World Rangiora. Before coming here, I was in retail operations at Foodstuffs, my last position was Raeward Fresh Group Manager, working at the Foodstuffs South Island head office in Christchurch. Annie was a senior executive for Foodstuffs too – she was the Fresh Food Operations Manager.

“We came here for a change of lifestyle and a sense of community. We wanted to have our own business in a small community, to bring up our two young girls and have a good balance in our lives. It’s such a good wee town, one of the nicest villages. We’re grateful that the planets lined up for us to come here. It’s like we’re putting into practice what we preached.

“I saw what the store owners went through in Christchurch. A community will do anything to get a supermarket open.

“Because we were exposed to everything Foodstuffs had to do in Christchurch, when this one happened we were relatively calm. The Christchurch one was bigger. It was loud – you couldn’t talk to each other.

“You learn a lot about how to react and how to recover. You don’t go running out of buildings. The fronts of buildings – the fascias – can fall. You stay inside, you let the building do its job, and then you get out when it’s over. I’ve told my team that you don’t run. If you do that, customers will do it, and you create panic.

“The core of this building is 92 years old – although it’s had some modern additions at the front and back. It was built strong. It wasn’t damaged. There aren’t even any cracks in the concrete piles.

“I’ve upped my stocks of water, so that I’ve always got a pallet of it in the back cooler. It’s good to know we’ve got some fresh water on hand, if there was a problem with the water supply.

“We’re looking at helping people set up survival packs, by getting all the right things in stock and selling the entire kit for a set price. We’re working with Civil Defence to determine what the ideal contents of a survival pack would be. We want to see what the store can do to help people if such an event happens again,” said John.