Some people 'never' recovered

Flooding in the northern suburbs of Waikiwi (top left), Grasmere (lower left) and Prestonville (right), when the Waihopai River breached its banks just east of Invercargill. The water in the top left of the picture is from the Waikiwi Stream, which also flooded. Photo by Donald Buckley.
Flooding in the northern suburbs of Waikiwi (top left), Grasmere (lower left) and Prestonville (right), when the Waihopai River breached its banks just east of Invercargill. The water in the top left of the picture is from the Waikiwi Stream, which also flooded. Photo by Donald Buckley.
It was a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky, yet the ground was awash with water, homes submerged and people stranded on roofs, as Southland struggled with the biggest flooding event in its history.

This Tuesday, Southlanders will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the January 1984 floods, which caused losses of more than $100 million (1984 dollars) to private, commercial and public property.

Record rainfall over the province on January 26 caused flooding to parts of Invercargill, Otautau and Tuatapere, and a state of emergency to be called early on January 27.

By nightfall, an estimated 4000 people had been evacuated from 1000 homes in Invercargill and 300 in Otautau.

In Tuatapere, 70 homes were evacuated.

Most residents were unable to reoccupy their homes for several months, with people staying in vacant NZ Aluminium Smelter staff houses; in caravans; and with friends and relatives.

Anne Stoddart, the Invercargill Civil Defence chief welfare officer in 1984, said the experience during the floods was unreal.

She would never forget the tiredness or the stress, and the aftermath was "just as dreadful". People were traumatised having seen their homes or livelihoods essentially float away.

While roads, homes and businesses were rebuilt, putting together people's lives was not as easy.

"Some people recovered, some never did. We saw marriages collapse. We had suicides, people lost jobs, some were still living in caravans the next winter."

Te Anau helicopter pilot Bill Black's rescue of people stranded on the top of a bus featured on the front page of the Otago Daily Times on January 28.

"It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, yet here we were, flooded. Unbelievable," Mr Black said.

Not only did he rescue people, he also lifted 194 cattle out of danger, and many cats and dogs.

Invercargill Police district commander at the time of the floods, Tommy Thomson, said what still stood out for him today was how the Southland community pulled together.

"We were lucky living here; people were so co-operative."

The biggest challenge at the time had been figuring out why people would not leave their homes, he said.

"Then the penny dropped. They were more concerned about their pets."

So a pet patrol was started. Food was rowed out to animals in need, and people's resistance ended, he said.

Invercargill, Otautau and Tuatapere now have comprehensive schemes that are designed to protect the communities against a 1984-sized flood. These allow an extra 0.5m capacity.

• The anniversary of the floods will be marked on Tuesday with a function for all surviving members of the 1984 civil defence response team, emergency services, and others. In October, there will be a travelling roadshow of photographs, and footage of the floods; an oral history project; and a photographic exhibition; at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery.

 

1984 Southland Floods

• January 26: Record rainfall and warnings issued to farmers along Aparima and Oreti Rivers. January 27: State of Emergency called. This ran until February 15.

• About 4000 people evacuated from 1000 homes.

• Invercargill isolated, only access by air.

• Otautau: 300 people were evacuated from 190 houses.

• About 12,000 sheep, 100 cattle, 334 pigs and 75 deer drowned.

• 170km of fences and 52 farm bridges were destroyed.

• Tuatapere: 70 homes were evacuated, 37 flooded.

• A public flood relief appeal topped $6 million.

• Insurance claims exceeded $50 million.