The Earthquake That Reinforced a Community's Sense of Home

white house on a hill
credit: Jen Peters

I was a producer with the BBC when my team and I first visited the New Zealand township of Lyttelton in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. When I think about that seaside town, I picture a white house nuzzled into the hillside with sunlight gleaming off its corrugated iron roof. It's where the Rhodes family lived before a quake hit just after lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon. That's when a boulder parked on the cliff peak above came loose.

Early settlers to New Zealand in the 1800s would have seen the looming dark rock parked up there as their ships sailed into the harbour. They would have shielded their eyes from bright sunlight as they looked up at lush hills of fertile land. My own great-great grandmother was among them.

As the hills heaved on that February day, the bolder bounced off its ancient perch. It jumped down the hillside and left craters at every spot it hit. The Rhodes' family home, that home on the hill, was filled with holes where the front door, and the living room, and the bathroom used to be. As my team and I arrived there, the last filming location for the news story, we steadied our camera on the mailbox at the top of the slope. From there, we had a clear line of sight through the house.

When we came across the Rhodes' family home, we had already been in the quake-hit region for three days. But this was our first glimpse of the destruction's epicentre.

It was easy to imagine being a kid here — you could picture throwing down a book bag on the kitchen table and running through the yard. You could see beyond to where the boulder had eventually settled and the milky blue sea in the distance. Half a bath was strewn on the lawn. In one moment, the home of four generations became a shell.

Luckily, the Rhodes weren't home at 12:51 p.m., the time that's etched in memories here. Mrs. Rhodes told reporters, "Yeah, this guy in town asked me if I'd seen the house on the hill that the boulder powered right through the middle of. Told him yeah, that'd be my place."

Mrs. Rhodes exemplified the humble humility that greeted us at every turn in Lyttleton. Homes were rubble, businesses were roped off, and cars were flattened by falling masonry. On every corner though, locals greeted each other with hugs and smiles, downplaying the disaster around them.

In a fleeting few days, the locals of Lyttelton defined "home." Everywhere we turned, scenes of community and kindness played out.

A crew of Royal New Zealand Navy officers had been docked in the port by chance, and they headed up past the splintered stores and scattered bricks to help. The building shells looking like rows of dollhouses with the fronts opened up: tables and chairs and photocopiers all exposed. One Navy officer who stood guard chuckled, joking with a boy who'd skidded up to him on a skateboard. The officer ruffled the child's hair and handed him a Jellytip ice cream from a crate beside his boots, the prized afterschool treat of Kiwi kids.

Soon, a cluster of small children stood by the curb on this closed-off road clutching their Jellytips. They hurriedly licked from the base upward as the syrupy mess ran in molten rivulets down their wrists. With power supplies cut by the quake, there weren't enough generators to keep the freezers running at the town supermarket.

The music café owner had a generator. He was using it to power an espresso machine that he'd hauled from his business' wreckage. A table lay laden with cakes, and an impromptu jam session struck up nearby. The scene had more than an inkling of a summertime festival. I felt that at any second, they were going to slowly look up and be smacked with the catastrophe that surrounded them.

When aftershocks rumbled the town again and again, they would ask with genuine concern if everyone felt alright. Each person we interviewed asked if there was anything we needed. Us. We who would return after this assignment to our intact homes.

As our team headed back around the cliff road, we stopped to locate the exact spot where geologists say the quake struck: the point where all of this damage shot up from the earth and shook this region with so much force that 185 lives were lost. That's when I saw an outline against the setting sun: The roof, still there on the Rhodes' house. It was like the sentiment of so many in this beautiful town: Hit us where it hurts, right in the heart, but we'll go on. This is home, and our home is all of us.

Jennie is a nation branding communications strategist with a background in television journalism and diplomacy. She's currently working for New Zealand Story in Auckland.