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