Volunteers crucial in emergencies

Waikouaiti Community Response Group co-ordinator Sonya Billyard says the East Otago Events Centre...
Waikouaiti Community Response Group co-ordinator Sonya Billyard says the East Otago Events Centre is the emergency hub for the area. PHOTO: SIMON HENDERSON
Dunedin and its environs boast a resilient network of community groups centred on emergency readiness. In an ongoing series we will highlight these local organisations, encouraging proactive participation and awareness. This week, The Star reporter Simon Henderson explores the challenges in Waikouaiti.

Waikouaiti’s Community Response Group, co-ordinated by Sonya Billyard, is dedicated to protecting residents from emergencies.

The main issue in the area is flooding, which has isolated residents and travellers several times.

The Waikouaiti River has previously caused these floods.

"Generally speaking, it has been cut off through the Karitane turnoff ... from the end of Waikouaiti to Hawksbury."

The town has also been cut off to the north, leaving people stranded.

"They couldn’t go north, and they couldn’t go south, so they were stuck in between, and we were in between."

The East Otago Events Centre, opened in 2009, serves as the local emergency hub.

It can accommodate up to 500 people and houses essential resources such as a food bank, bedding, spare clothing, sandbags, a first aid kit, and an automated external defibrillator.

It also has a "massive" water tank, left behind after the 2022 water contamination scare in the area.

High-visibility vests, flags, and basic stationery help volunteers manage evacuations.

There is a direct phone line to the Dunedin City Emergency Operations Centre.

"So that is a huge asset for us, to know immediately what’s going on and relaying information," she said.

Despite these provisions, significant gaps remain.

The centre lacks a generator, leaving it without power during outages.

"We need a generator to be able to power up at least a couple of small rooms here to get the power going and to be able to make a cup of tea and keep people warm and dry."

This deficiency hampers the ability to provide warmth, hot drinks, and charge devices—vital comforts during prolonged emergencies.

Other items on the group’s wishlist include walkie-talkies and a Starlink satellite internet connection for better communication.

"So the main concern is a form of communication and keeping people warm and dry and fed."

A strong local volunteer presence is crucial for the town’s emergency preparedness.

"We are lucky in that we have got volunteers who are committed to turn up in the event of an emergency."

The group also values its close relationship with the Dunedin City Council and Civil Defence.

Mrs Billyard emphasised the need for community involvement, particularly urging younger families to get themselves prepared.

While the older demographic has shown understanding of the importance of readiness, the inclusion of all age groups is vital for comprehensive community safety.

"You want those young families to know."