People felt pressured


No one drowned. No one was electrocuted. No one succumbed to disease. But people did die from the 1984 floods.

Civil Defence chief welfare officer at the time, Anne Stoddart, confirms it quietly: "We had suicides."

Imagine, she says, a Kiwi man, very macho, a provider for his wife and kids, now overwhelmed by forces that seem so beyond his control, taking himself to the bottom paddock.

Invercargill residents at the Scottish Hall after being evacuated.
Invercargill residents at the Scottish Hall after being evacuated.

The suicide count, not conveniently tallied for us but not a single case either, was part of the dark, hidden anguish the flood left in its wake.

What effect did the sheer stress have in cases such as that of a couple flooded out of Waikiwi, the wife waking to find her husband dead in bed beside her? It's not as if he'd been sick.

Much of the immediate trauma was there for the wider community to see, even if people weren't being dramatic about it. Which sometimes they were.

"I remember the anger," Mrs Stoddart says.

"But also seeing people who, when they looked at you, their eyes were vacant. They just stared at you."

Seemingly small things were leading to great hurt.

"A young mother came up police were everywhere but she was determined to get speak to me crying because one of her little children was just devastated because he was going to lose his favourite teddy."

He still had it, but the floods had seeped into its innards. "She wanted to know if she could dry it out."

No, sorry, came the reply. Health regulations wouldn't allow it, and for good reason. Some of that water was fouled.

"We were terrified there would be diseases. There weren't, because we were so careful."

It was the right call, to be sure, but it's so much easier to say that when you're not the one who has to wrench the beloved toy from the bereft child.

Kids did it tough on many levels. "We had lots of problems with little ones wetting beds, screaming at night."

For their part, the volunteers were finding their own personal problems. They were gone for long periods, returning dog-tired and quite possibly stressed, to find their own domestic situations under real pressure.

"Their spouses didn't always understand."

Then came the corrosions of displacement and time. About 5000 people were out of their homes. Some went into vacant houses Tiwai, bless, had just built some new ones others went with friends, neighbours or relatives. More than just a few wound up in caravans.

It all seemed a short-term measure, and for some it was.

But although the floodwaters left soon enough, that didn't make the homes habitable. Temporary accommodation had to last months, even up to a year in purgatory. If not hell.

"Lots of dads lost their jobs. It just floated away," Mrs Stoddart says. "So dad's at home, which wouldn't be usual for him, financial problems weighing down ..."

The temporary homes became pressure cookers. "Can you imagine what that did to some of the marriages?"

Hard months passed and people did what they could to cope. "Parents needed holidays away from their children to try to sort themselves out." Sometimes they couldn't.

"We had divorces."

It wasn't all bleak. A great deal of compassion and support found expression during the floods, and then, in October 1984, came the news that had a recovering province smiling.

Southland Hospital Board chief nurse Rachel Peek reflected on a mini baby boom, which she termed "water babies". If some lives were lost, it seems some were generated, too.

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