When the Sweeney family thinks back to the night of 14 November, it’s the noise that sticks with them.

“There was smashing everywhere and the dog was barking,” Maxine Sweeney explains. "You just didn’t know what was going to stop falling and what was actually falling.”

When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck just after midnight, it got the whole family out of bed. The family live on a farm just outside Seddon and are next to the sea, so they quickly evacuated to the local school, where they spent the night in case of tsunami.

One year later the physical evidence of the night remains. Maxine points out where the floors slope down toward the back of the house, something perfectly illustrated by 12-year-old Ashleigh as she places a marble on the floor, and watches it roll speedily into a corner.

Maxine is pragmatic when it comes to the damage, saying the experience has taught her to place less emphasis on materialistic things.

“We used to have lots of beautiful ornaments and things on the walls,” she says. “Now we have things that aren’t going to damage us if they come off the walls. I had mugs that no one was allowed to use, they were my decorative mugs, but now we use them.”

Looking beyond the physical

The psychological impact of the earthquake is a different story. Maxine isn’t fazed by earthquakes in general and found it relatively easy to bounce back from the November 2016 one. Her husband Dave and daughter Ashleigh reacted differently and were shaken up by the experience.

“I was quite non-understanding of it actually,” says Maxine. “I just kind of said to them to toughen up. But it didn’t work so I had to change to make myself understand that they were fearful for their lives and that it was actually quite serious for them.” 

The change came about after Maxine and Dave attended a New Zealand Red Cross recovery matters workshop at the local play centre, where Maxine is president.

“Someone said to me ‘they’re actually fearful’ but because I’m not afraid of [earthquakes] I didn’t register it like that and I couldn’t understand why everyone was [worried],” she says. “I think it was listening to what their fears were that changed how I was perceiving it myself and realise that it was okay for them to be afraid.”

At the same time Maxine was told that her own reaction to her family’s fear was also a response to the earthquake.

“I think that did make me feel better because the Red Cross lady wasn’t judging me on my reaction.”

The family is now closer and Maxine says the family unit is stronger because of it.

“I think our kids know that we’ll protect them no matter what. If there’s a night that we all need to sleep together than we’ll all sleep together.” 

Building resilient communities

“I think it changed the community massively, changed people’s lives, and how they look at the world,” says Maxine. “It really, really scared people and I don’t think people have recovered fully.”

Having said that, Maxine believes that the experience also brought the community in Seddon closer together, with many leaning on each other for support in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

The general feeling now in town is one of preparedness. The school is in the midst of ensuring they have enough supplies in case there’s another emergency, while the Sweeney family have refined their emergency plan. The children know exactly what they’ll do in another emergency: where they should meet, who will get in what car, and how they evacuate the dog.

As part of its recovery activities, Red Cross has been supporting and working with agencies and community groups to provide communities like Seddon with practical assistance and encouragement. This included delivering 500 Winter Care Packs to affected residents in Marlborough, Kaikoura, and Hurunui, something Maxine says was particularly welcome.

“We got a winter warmer pack which was really cool, it was a really nice surprise. This is such an old, cold house so the draught stoppers and things were really good.”

You can find out more about community recovery in Marlborough, Kaikoura, and Hurunui here.