In the months after the November 2016 earthquake, Cheviot mum Michele Forrester noticed her power bills had doubled. She didn’t realise it, but her hot water cylinder had been damaged during the quake and was leaking.

Her house, a compact home with a sunny backyard, was already hard to heat. A fireplace in the living room only warmed half the house and she woke up every morning to find condensation dripping on the windows.

All of this had a big impact on Michele’s daughter Isabelle, now 18 months old.

“When Izzy was about six months old, she started getting bronchiolitis and tonsillitis and ear infections – and this all started during winter,” Michele explains. “The cold in the house wasn’t helping. I had a heater on in her room 24/7.”

Michele was one of the people referred to Community Energy Action (CEA) after the quake. CEA, with support from Red Cross, has offered financial assistance to help people make their homes warmer and more energy efficient while they undertake earthquake repairs.

When the team arrived to assess Michele’s house, they discovered the quake-damaged hot water cylinder. They also found the house had minimal insulation and realised the bathroom’s extractor fan was taking steam and moisture into the ceiling right above Isabelle’s room.

Thanks to the Earthquake Hardship Support programme, this winter will be different for Michele and Isabelle. Their house has now been fully insulated, the hot water cylinder repaired and a heat transfer system to move heat from the fire throughout the house will soon be installed. The bathroom’s extractor fan will be adjusted to take moisture outside the house, instead of into the ceiling.

The alterations will be life-changing for the family, Michele says.

“I think it will make a huge difference for Izzy’s health and mine – I suffer from asthma as well. Instead of being sick every fortnight, we might be able to cut it down to a couple of times for the whole winter.”

The Earthquake Hardship Support programme has enabled dozens of people such as Michele to undertake comprehensive repairs and afford to heat their house. But having a warm place to call home is not the only benefit from the programme, CEA chief executive Caroline Shone says.

“It’s not just about giving money to people. It’s a bigger picture thing. People just feeling like people care is massive from a mental wellbeing perspective and this has a knock-on effect to health.”

The CEA team say there’s a stoic attitude toward recovery in the Hurunui, Marlborough and Kaikōura communities.

“We have stoic farmers who just say ‘she’ll be all right — you don’t need to worry about me’. It takes time for people to say ‘hey, we know of someone that needs your help’.”

Despite this, more than 400 referrals for the service have been received so far, and there have been plenty of success stories. There have also been some challenges along the way.

Working with three different councils — and three different ways of reaching the community — has meant tailoring approaches to each region. The rural nature of the affected area, the damaged roads and ongoing roadworks, and the distance between affected communities has also created extra work for the team.

“It’s not insurmountable. The drive [motivation] to get to these people far outweighs the challenges,” Caroline says.

“There are too many people talking about what can’t be done and not looking at what can be done. Let’s see what we can do.”

The Earthquake Hardship Support is available for people who live in earthquake-damaged houses and meet eligibility criteria. For more information, head to cea.co.nz.