Help came online for the first time

18:50, Feb 16 2014
Flood help
HELPING HAND: Alice Parris, left, with Gordon Bocher and Judith Leslie help run the flood relief depot.

The February 2004 floods across the Manawatu-Whanganui region were recognised as a disaster, but kindness prompted changes in the way offers of help are managed. Janine Rankin reports. 

As images of the February 2004 floods across greater Manawatu spread through the media, New Zealanders dug into their pockets and store rooms.

The region made television news, and donations that would add up to $1.4 million began flooding in to the Holmes Show appeal.

Flood help
WHERE TO START: Judith Leslie, in Thames, with some of the donated goods, back in 2004.

The first of hundreds of thousands of donated items began swamping the Red Cross warehouse set up in Palmerston North to try to match what was given to what people actually needed.

In Feilding, a welfare centre was set up at Manfeild, which remained open for weeks offering a dry refuge, help, advice, and warm clothes and bedding as approaching winter heaped misery upon the sodden.

Palmerston North sat relatively unscathed in the centre of the devastation, largely high and dry, thanks to effective flood protection.


Life in the city carried on much as usual apart from some surface flooding and school closures prompted by country-dwelling staff being unable to get to work, or being sent home before roads became impassable.

Work and Income swung into action, as did Task Force Green projects, and neighbours and impromptu teams turned up to help.

On the day the river banks burst, former mayor and former Manawatu MP Jill White was doing what she always did on Mondays - visiting her elderly father in Foxton.

That was when rest home staff alerted her to the ill-founded rumour that the Fitzherbert Bridge was about to collapse and that she should head back to Palmerston North.

From her Aokautere Drive home, she watched Waterloo Park disappearing under water.

"It was quite spooky, but the whole enormity of the situation took a few days to dawn on us."

Willing to help if she could, she was delighted to get the call from the Palmerston North City Council inviting her to chair a new Manawatu Wanganui Regional Relief fund.

"Other people were so busy dealing with the effects. We were the ones who had the energy to do this."

City council legal counsel John Annabell drafted the trust deed, and council staff provided administration support.

"Various districts already had, or very quickly set up their own funds, but I don't think anybody had envisaged something on quite such a regional scale," Mrs White said.

The regional trust included, and still does, a representative from each of the local authorities, who provided ground-level advice about where the greatest needs lay.

The fund received $1,671,963 in donations, topped up by an extraordinary $7,263,000 from a government subsidy, matching donations made to all of the recognised flood relief funds.

The most significant of those other funds was the Red Cross appeal, in partnership with Federated Farmers.

That fund received a total of just under $5m, its biggest single boost coming from the Holmes Show.

The greatest part of its money, $3.59m, was allocated to farmers, and $1.02m to evacuated households.

Red Cross national operations manager Andrew McKie said most farmers received $5500 apiece - not enough to dent the costs of rebuilding their farms, but rather, encouragement grants to spend on some home comforts.

Mr McKie remembers the floods as a significant disaster for New Zealand.

It was the first time since the Napier earthquake in 1931 that the organisation had set up a relief fund.

Technology played its part for the first time.

While $50,000 came in through an 0900 automatic donation line, a small but significant $16,000 was donated online.

"We used our website for the first time. It was in its infancy. We were one of the first organisations to ever receive online donations."

The lessons learnt provided a blueprint for the Red Cross relief fund for the Christchurch earthquakes - an appeal that raised $125m, most of it online, and with the phone option redundant.

The other thing learnt from the Manawatu floods was about people wanting to donate goods.

The Red Cross regional office set up a warehouse for donated goods that received shipments from all around the country.

The exercise was almost a disaster in its own right, with piles of unwanted goods to be dealt with.

"Since then we have really told people we need money, not goods," said Mr McKie.

The regional relief fund deliberately moved cautiously in distributing grants to individuals, community groups, small businesses and marae.

It allocated grants in three rounds, mindful that some people took time to ask for help, and some needs only emerged with time as the floodwaters receded. The third round of grants was made 18 months after the event.

The advice of local authorities and the Eastern and Central Community Trust guided most of its decisions.

The fund complemented the government's "On-Farm" relief package, in ways such as paying to fly fencers in from the South Island.

An unallocated $170,000 was released for the Christchurch earthquake appeals, in line with the fund's initial rules that allowed any remaining money to be spent outside the region.

Dr Annabell said $42,000 remained, with $27,500 held on behalf of Ruapehu and Rangitikei district councils.

A trust suggestion to local authorities to lobby Horizons to strike a rate to build up a $100,000 contingency fund to kick-start relief when disaster next strikes was not supported. However, the structure remains on standby.

Manawatu Standard