It’s been an extraordinarily wet summer in Southland, causing havoc to locals and tourists around the region. Early February 2020 saw one metre of rain fall in 60 hours in Milford Sound, of which 600mm fell within just 24 hours.

When a state of emergency was declared by Civil Defence Emergency Management Southland following torrential downpours, New Zealand Red Cross’ Disaster Welfare and Support Team in Invercargill was activated to provide support. Many tourists were stranded in huts on various walking tracks in Fiordland, which were cut off by slips and overflowing rivers, prompting emergency evacuations via helicopter to Te Anau, Glenorchy and Queenstown.

Five disaster response volunteers were present in the Community Hub of Te Anau to assist flood evacuees with up-to-date information on the situation and provide emotional support, also called psychological first aid

Flooded fields in Southland.

Meanwhile, the Mautara river reached concerningly high water level, flooding houses and infrastructure in Gore and Mautara. Another eight disaster response volunteers were deployed to the Mautara Welfare Centre to offer support to people who had had their house affected by the rising waters.

“We had a 6pm to 10am shift in the centre the night it opened. People had just seen the damage in their house, and it was a difficult time for some of them,” explains Mallory, a Red Cross disaster response volunteer who was at the centre.

Volunteers provided food parcels to people and provided information for the many questions people had, guiding them to the right people or agency. Being a friendly face, listening to people’s concerns and providing some company was a big part of our disaster response volunteers’ role.

“One woman stood out to me. She was sitting on the side by herself. I wasn’t sure anyone had talked to her, so I went to her. As soon as I said hi, she burst into tears,” shares Mallory.

“She told me that she had just renovated her house for their retirement and didn’t have enough money to spend on insurance after that. With the floods, her house had water up to knee level. The floor and the walls will definitely need to be repaired, but she said she had no money left for that. She was very upset.”

Providing emotional support is a key part of our disaster response volunteers’ work. Looking out for the impact of the disaster on people’s wellbeing is a unique aspect of the work we do – whether that is during the Southland floods, at Whangaparāoa Defence Force training base, in the aftermath of the mosque attacks in Christchurch or after the 2016 November earthquake.

Thomas, Mallory, Miguel and Henry, the Tuatara in Mataura Welfare Centre.

A local effort

The first responders in a disaster such as flooding are always the community, and this was certainly the case in the recent Southland floods.

“I was very impressed by the good community support for all these people who had their houses yellow stickered, and also at how people kept their spirit up in some very tough circumstances,” explains Maggie, the deputy team leader.

For two residents of Invercargill in particular, the floods have prompted them to give back something special they once received when they were caught in some floods – a blanket gifted by New Zealand Red Cross in 1984.

Jimmy and Evelyn Armstrong lost everything in the 1984 floods, when the Waihopai river flooded and more than 5,000 people were forced to leave their homes.

“We had kept the blanket all these years, but we no longer needed it. So, when I heard what was happening in some parts of Southland, I thought it could be useful to someone else,” explains Evelyn who kindly brought her blanket back to New Zealand Red Cross’ office in Invercargill.

A special visit

A few days after the floods, our disaster response volunteers were asked to do needs assessments over the phone from the Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC) in Invercargill. They were calling people affected by the floods and listening to their situation, asking what support they may need and answering any questions. That same night, our volunteers were surprised by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, who was in the region to check in with people affected by recent flooding.

“We talked about how we helped people. Then, there were cheese rolls on the table for dinner and she mentioned something about them, so we talked about our upcoming Cheese Roll fundraising event we’re having here in May. She thought it was very funny!” shares Maggie with a laugh. 

Red Cross team in Invercargill with New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern.

Help us respond to emergencies

Extreme weather events such as the Southland floods or the Northland droughts, as well as disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, keep our disaster response volunteers busy. Help us respond to future emergencies by: