Massive tragedy avoided

Emergency Management Southland says preparation and training across the region has helped avoid a massive tragedy, with the “100-year flood” that hit the region showing the true spirit and tenacity of Southlanders.
Heavy rain caused flooding across Eastern Southland last week, with Gore, Mataura and Wyndham all evacuated due to the rising levels of the Mataura River which flooded houses, businesses and caused numerous road closures.

Southland Civil Defence Emergency Management Group chairman Neville Cook praised members of the community in the way they responded to the emergency.

He said he believed having people evacuated from three towns simultaneously was a first for the country.

“We evacuated… three towns, in quite a short period of time. I don’t think that has ever happened in New Zealand before. That could’ve been a real debacle, but it wasn’t. It went very, very smoothly. We didn’t lose anyone. That was the main thing.”

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Aerial photos how just how vulnerable some properties in eastern Southland were. PHOTO: High Country Helicopters.

“Southlanders were fabulous about this. They were alert and thinking about what they were doing…. You never quite expect it to happen… Emergency Management Southland had practised and forecast for this potential kind of event and planned for it.”

Mr Cook was a police liaison officer during the floods in 1979 and 1984 and said the floods last week were like a “repeat performance”. It was the second time he had seen a “100-year flood” happen.

He said the recovery stage would take “a long time”, with the scope of the recovery effort still being assessed.

Several flooded houses in Mataura as well as numerous rural properties were being checked, as well as flood banks in the area to ensure they weren’t compromised during the floods and continued to work in the event of more flooding, Mr Cook said.

The state of emergency declared last week was renewed until next Tuesday (January 18), which will assist in recovery efforts moving forward, he added.

“We still have roads that are closed. We still have works on flood banks to be done that the civil defence legislation enables during an emergency. If we don’t have an emergency… then that would mean all the costs, for instance, fall back on the local authorities.”

He said he expected it to be lifted next Tuesday, with other interim solutions within the legislation to be potentially adopted once reviewed closer to the deadline.

Members from other civil defence organisations around New Zealand assisted Emergency Management Southland during the week, with crews coming in from Wellington, Canterbury, the West Coast and Blenheim.

Mr Cook said numerous people worked very long shifts during the week and the assistance from other centres was appreciated as it allowed for staff to take rests as well as act as a learning experience for everyone involved.

With the recovery efforts in full swing, several community groups had bonded together to assist as well as helping out and volunteering where needed.

Situations like this often “renewed community spirit” in regions such as Southland, Mr Cook said.

“I was talking to some people from the Wyndham area and they were saying that it was actually a wonderful experience in terms of how people helped each other. Everyone in the community stepped up to help. And they got to know people. It is a social occasion when you’re stuck somewhere in a hall, you socialise.”

“The welfare centres that were set up worked beautifully. The people knew what to do, they knew where to go. We got supplies to them, so nobody starved or was cold or had nowhere to sleep. It was just all that preparation was very worthwhile.”

This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here

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