Like the rest of the world, Nicky van Praagh found out about the Whakaari/White Island eruption while watching the news. A few days later, she would be a part of New Zealand Red Cross response to the unprecedented emergency. A year on, she reflects on her experience.   

Nicky arrived in Whakatāne three days after the eruption and spent the day at Te Mānuka Tutahi Marae with the loved ones of people affected by the volcanic eruption.

“The reality of being in a marae with the grieving families was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had actually. The way they conducted the grief process, by singing, laughing and telling stories of the young boy… yes, I learnt a lot from that,” says Nicky. 

During the crisis, a key role that New Zealand Red Cross' disaster response volunteers on the ground played was providing Psychological First Aid (PFA) to people who were anxiously waiting for news about those impacted by the disaster.  

Creating connections is fundamental in getting individuals to share their thoughts and feelings. Nicky found this with someone she met while at the marae who was worried for the wellbeing of his staff. Being a manager herself, she was able to empathise with him.

“He was talking to me about the responsibilities of being in a leadership position,  he was very conflicted. Having the PFA skills, I could allow him to feel comfortable enough to share what he was feeling. I think he felt [talking about] it was quite useful. Especially being able to chat to someone who understood what it’s like being in a managerial position, and being responsible for staff. He was worried about everyone else,” says Nicky. 

While talking to him, Nicky recalls how he was a bit overwhelmed with all the calls he was receiving at the time.    

The multi-agency response to the Whakaari/White Island eruption was led by New Zealand Police. Months later, when Nicky was deployed to join New Zealand Red Cross’ Disaster Welfare and Support Team (DWST) that supported the 158 evacuees in Whangaparāoa,  she came across a familiar face.   

Nicky recalls the interaction, “One of the police officers recognised me from White Island [response] and he was saying how great it was to have Red Cross there [during the Whakaari/White Island response] for the people."  

Nicky has been a disaster response volunteer for over five years and the Whaakari/White Island response is an experience that she learnt so much from.

“I’ve been to floods and Whangaparāoa, but this one was so different. It was all about PFA, more emotional and psychological. I spent all day getting hugs. They just wanted to chat. They were all so willing to share their stories,” says Nicky.  

Nicky (right) with fellow disaster response volunteer Troy Cleaver.