NZ earthquake: First hand stories from staff on the ground


Sometimes the most challenging experiences are the ones that truly test the strength of a community. In mid-November, just past midnight on a Monday, a powerful magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook Kaikoura, New Zealand. Buildings in the New Zealand capital city of Wellington were deemed unsafe and the popular seaside township of Kaikoura was devastated.

However, what the event really highlighted was the strength of the CLV community. Uni Hall (at UC Accommodation Student Village) in Christchurch and Te Puni Village (TPV) in Wellington extended their support to students, tourists and locals displaced by the quakes, offering hundreds of guests a place to stay, hot showers, meals and comfort.

We talked to Denise Hart (Village Manager) and Beth Sant (Residential Services Officer) at TPV, as well as Anna Williams (Village Manager) and Jess Hardley (Village Assistant) at UC Accommodation Student Village about their personal experiences, the challenges they faced and the teams that made this all possible.

Te Puni Village, Wellington

When the earthquake hit, 385 TPV residents had just moved out, leaving nine residents, five staff and a lot of empty beds. In true CLV spirit, the award-winning earthquake-resilient village was determined a Civil Defence location and welcomed students who needed a safe place to stay.

Denise, who was beginning her employment with TPV the next morning, arrived in Wellington and truly hit the ground running!



Denise Hart and Beth Sant

Where were you when the earthquake happened?

Denise: I had just arrived into town on Sunday 13 November and was starting my contract the next day. When I woke up to the earthquake at 12:05am I realised I was ON DUTY. I called TPV and Beth answered. She said people are moving in and we are officially a Civil Defence site. I arrived around 1:30am to see the team in full action.

Beth: I had moved into TPV that Sunday along with our four new summer assistants and Kim who is the Residential Services Officer. At about 1:00am the University made the decision for TPV to become a designated Civil Defence site and told us to expect around 30-50 students. We split up the team to start gathering duvets, water and get food supplies ready. The tsunami sirens were going off and people in the city were being told to go to higher ground.

We ended up receiving 156 students between 1:00am and 6:30am. Most came from the CBD in Wellington and most were international students.

Neither I nor Kim had ever experienced an earthquake before. I am English and Kim is Canadian, but all of the RAs are Kiwis and they were great at making sure we were ok. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that Kim and I really understood the magnitude of what happened, and that we had such a responsibility at the time. It was all about looking after the people.

How did you manage the situation?

Beth: To keep track of everyone we actually used the Contractor Check In Form and Kim was walking around collecting names, ID card numbers and where they were from as we knew the University would also want this information. We had fire warden jackets on so if anyone needed us we were easy to spot.

What were guests most concerned about?

Denise: Many of the guests had English as their second language and wanted to stay together so we put everyone on the same floor, near ground level. We realised that putting people up on the higher levels, they would be terrified of the shaking even though it is a very safe building. And the shaking never seemed to stop.

What were the positives that came out of this event?

Denise: The highlight was walking in and having to introduce myself as the manager in baggy old pants and taking direction from Beth, who was in full swing! I was absolutely impressed with the team, their processes and order – nobody was panicking and the students who were displaced were very grateful.

Beth: We have this amazing bond with our summer assistants and we suddenly saw each other at our most vulnerable. It was quite an historical event because it was the second biggest earthquake and without even knowing each other we were a united front and everyone offered support for each other.

What is the one biggest lesson / take away?

Denise: Although we have processes in place, when it comes to the crunch we need to allow people to step up and do what they can do at the time. A debrief is also important to review what we could have done better. We are now setting up a couple of new systems such as having a database form ready. We have checked our emergency rooms and are ready to go if there is another one. You can’t always prepare for every situation, but just need to trust in the training and skill of your team.


Uni Hall, Christchurch

Uni Hall played host to hundreds of displaced guests, with staff and the UCA Student Volunteer Army working through the night to prepare rooms for evacuees making the journey from Kaikoura.



Anna Williams and Jess Hardley

Where were you when the earthquake happened?

Anna: I had just moved into my new house that day and was driving so I really didn’t feel it. I got a message from Nick (General Manager) and then I got a call from the night duty manager. It was exactly nine months from the earthquake on Move In Day on February 14 2016 – so this was our second major earthquake this year!

Jess: I was at home and just getting into bed then all of a sudden there was this rolling… that just kept going. We live near the beach so we turned the radio on to hear news about a possible tsunami warning. At 3:00am the tsunami sirens started going off so we got in the car and went up to the top of the hills. We were cleared around 4:00am to go back to our homes.



When did you hear that UCA would be housing people who had been stranded in Kaikoura?

Anna: The next morning at about 10am we got a call from Civil Defence and heard that there were possibly 200-300 evacuees coming. We didn’t know what time they would be arriving but we needed to immediately put together an action plan. Fortunately this was not our first time dealing with an earthquake and Nick, who has had previous experience with these kind of events, took the lead. With only 120 residents on-site, we decided to move all residents to one hall to make sure they were safe at all times.

A big challenge was moving residents or locating current residents who were in-room but not in the Village. We also had to make up 200-300 bedrooms which was a massive feat – especially since residents had just moved out, the rooms hadn’t been cleaned yet and we didn’t have enough bed packs!



How did students react to being asked to move out?

Jess: I found that most residents were really happy to do it and just wanted to make sure they were out in time. They understood they were helping out people in a crisis.

Anna: We had one resident who created the Working Bee Facebook page and coordinated support where it was needed. She put up one post requesting people to go out at 4:00am to welcome the bus loads of evacuees and our residents were like ‘yep sweet’. It is interesting that we are seeing students come through who want to be leaders and we are now looking for ways that we can identify these leaders early on in the year.



It sounds like it was an ‘all hands on deck‘ approach!

Anna: With so many people expected we used the same logistics we use for our Open Day which the staff are familiar with. So they all knew how and where to register people, move them through the process without bottle necks and right to their rooms. We were their last stop and we knew people would be tired, their anxiety would be high and they just wanted a bed and a shower. The volunteers were even carrying luggage for them as some were just exhausted after spending the night on a navy ship. Not only were we representing UCA but we felt like we were representing NZ, and we wanted to make sure people were safe and happy.

The volunteers and staff were amazing! We ended up getting over 100 people from the Student Volunteer Army, who were recruited within hours. We worked with our marketing team around communications and were aware that the media were going to be on site. We were also focussed on maintaining our same standard of service to our current residents.

What were the positives that came out of this event?

Jess: Even though the situation was less than ideal, I felt like it was the biggest morale boosting moment for the staff as we all came together for this event, and personally it has been one of the highlights of working here!