Floods deluged a Top of the South community in August, but affected farmers tended to decline help. By Anne Hardie.

Farmers in the Rai Valley and surrounding areas were overwhelmed in the aftermath of the August deluge, combined with calving and dumping milk, and yet many still declined help initially.

It is a pretty typical response from rural New Zealand and they are more likely to suggest someone else is in greater need rather than accept help themselves.

Aubrey Tai is Marlborough District Council’s Te Horiere/Pelorus Catchment Restoration Project co-ordinator and once the flooding subsided was able to use the project’s funding to help with urgent fencing along waterways. He was supplied a list of contacts and when he contacted those people, 95% said their neighbours were in more need of help.

“Rural communities are pretty stubborn and won’t ask for help,” he says. “Everyone thinks someone else is worse off and there’s some pride involved in there about needing help. The older generation tends to think they can handle it themselves. But as these weather events become more extreme, maybe people will accept help easier.”

Semi-retired Rai Valley dairy farmer Brent Morrison says people often don’t want to be a burden and think they are going to cope.

Volunteers from the Nelson Trout Fishing Club and Nelson Marlborough Fish & Game after the flood.

“I had a forestry guy offering fencing to farmers and he said they were often saying they were okay, so I told him to just turn up. Then they took his help.”

Neighbours were often the first to offer farmers help and after that first exhausting week, Aubrey’s portable hangi supplied meals for a group of neighbours in the Ronga Valley which flows down to Rai Valley. One of the local farmers wanted to thank neighbours for their help in the wake of the flood and it became a bigger event by inviting the neighbourhood along for a get-together and a meal they didn’t need to prepare themselves. It prompted a second hangi in the neighbouring Opouri Valley a couple of weeks later and Aubrey says gatherings allow people to get together. It also provides a meal during an exhausting period when they don’t have to cook or do the dishes at the end of a long day. It is often hard to know who needs help, he says. In the Rai area there are three different valley systems as well as the town and each have their own communities and knowledge of who needs help and that is typical of much of rural NZ. Those communities in future can work on putting together information about their community so they can swiftly communicate their needs to agencies on issues such as roading and communication.

From the other side, he says agencies and contractors brought in to work on roads and clean up need to better understand the needs of the community and be aware of the stress on people.

“You have locals trying to clear a road and the first person they meet is telling them they are going to be prosecuted. Every organisation these days needs some sort of briefing before deploying staff out into the field. If they come into contact with landowners in super-stressful times, they need to be sensitive.”

Brent has been at the receiving end of accusations when trying to do emergency work to get to stock. This time the family farm where his son milks 400 cows got off lightly compared with others in the region, though like all the other farms, they had to dump milk for eight days. Their neighbouring dairy farm had just four paddocks above the floodwaters and were in the middle of calving. While further toward Nelson, an entire dairy farm was flooded and the herd had to be transported elsewhere.

The Morrisons’ river flats are regularly flooded, though the severity of the August event gouged out big areas of riverbank and has made the river flats very vulnerable for future flooding. When the full force of the river breaches the banks and flows over paddocks, it begins to dig holes in the ground that are big enough to bury a tractor. The lower paddocks have had two-wire fences until now, but bigger, more frequent floods means they will likely drop to just one wire in the hope floodwater and debris will flow through.

House on the road.

In the first days after the flooding, Brent had to get to another block of land in the hills where they run 75 rising two-year-old steers. Many dairy farmers in the region have similar blocks in the hill country as runoffs. Farmers had plenty of warning about the heavy rain, so Brent left a tractor and feed trailer at the block before it began. Roads were blocked by slips during the rain and they had to find an alternative route to the block which took them through 15km of forestry.

“The first day it took us four hours of chainsawing to get to the property. Every day we went there we had to cut through more trees that had fallen and we needed two people and two vehicles each time in case you got stuck.”

Another block had the water pipe buried under a tonne of gravel and neighbours helped them get a temporary pipe in place within the first couple of days.

Chris Faulls is the Top of the South Rural Support Trust adverse events coordinator and part of the Rural Advisory Group that advocates for rural communities when extreme events happen. It took a well-oiled community response to overcome the many obstacles facing farmers around the Rai Valley. A critical role was influencing the decision-makers that minor roads were important and needed to be cleared, which sometimes meant raising animal welfare issues as the reason for getting it done.

“Fonterra pushed really hard to get roads open and when the road damage is so widespread, farmers were doing self-help to get Fonterra to them.”

He gives full credit to the Marlborough District Council for allowing much of the work to be done by locals clearing a path for not just milk tankers, but food and medications to get through.

Once the roads could be negotiated, they could get in to ensure everyone was all right.

“On day two you have tears and a bit of anger and a bit of numbness. Then all of a sudden, the community was helping them and their mood lifted.”

Making sure no-one falls through the cracks is one of the group’s roles and Chris says that meant knocking on doors as well as asking neighbours because farmers tend to know about their neighbours. It is important, he says, to have the right people knocking on doors as some farmers don’t want just anyone rocking up their driveway to ask questions.

“We’ve had people in the past say they don’t like a whole lot of people coming up their driveways, especially in orange vests. We have farmers go in Red Bands to have a chat and work out what is needed.”

Communication was a problem as it is in much of rural NZ when extreme events occur. Many areas still have copper wire for communication which has not been upgraded because cell phone towers have been erected. During the August event, Chris says those systems were not working in many areas and often residents were reliant on a big player in their neighbourhood who had generation capacity and ability to communicate beyond their valley.

“It makes it harder to know how people are getting on and it delays things by days. You hear about people needing help and it’s not the same as dealing with them directly.”

Civil Defence is at the heart of the emergency response, but Chris says it doesn’t have the reach it once had and it assumes communication is better than it actually is in many rural areas. It still takes community knowledge to reach everyone and it can take time for support to get there.

Weeks after the event, Brent says farmers are continuing to clear slips and silt on their properties and volunteers are still around. Volunteers are welcome with open arms, but if they don’t have experience, he says they need someone with the time and management skills to supervise them.

Farmers don’t usually have time to supervise volunteers. He says that was one of the great things about the Fonterra Emergency Response team that went to farms with the necessary skills to tackle the repair work. Many of the locals on lifestyle blocks had skills also, such as fencing, and rolled up to farms ready to tackle jobs by themselves.

Chris says there is always a danger of flooding a hotspot with help and overlooking surrounding areas. In this case, Rai Valley was severely affected, but other areas around the region, like the nearby North Bank were also hit hard and did not get the same response.

As help diminishes and farmers carry on by themselves, some will continue to struggle, he says. Six months down the track, someone may just snap under the pressure. He encourages neighbours and families to be mindful of the stress affecting individuals and that it doesn’t necessarily dissipate after the emergency response goes home.

Minimising consent delays for remedial work

Remedial river works are going to become an increasing issue for farmers facing bigger floods more often when they can’t use diggers to rectify breaches along rivers and streams without a resource consent and that takes time.

Brent Morrison’s family has milked cows on their Rai Valley farm for nearly 100 years and are used to floods across the river flats, but the rain events are getting more intense and causing greater damage.

In a typical year, the farm’s annual rainfall is about two metres – last year it was 3m.

In the August flood, three days of rain delivered 700mm on to one of their blocks, while the top of the nearby Opouri Valley recorded 1.4m. All that water headed down streams and rivers into the Rai River which then flowed into the Pelorus, capturing more water as it headed to Havelock. Along the way, it bounced between the sides of the valleys and blew out chunks of riverbank to career across paddocks as it took the easiest route to the sea.

More floods will follow and the banks of the rivers and streams have gaps blown out that will allow the floodwaters easy access across farmland. Brent says farmers have the ability and often the machinery to do a lot of the necessary work to protect their properties, but under the Resource Management Act they cannot take machinery such as diggers within 8m of waterways without a resource consent.

Each landowner needs a resource consent to carry out any remedial work and time is of the essence when they don’t know when the next heavy rain event hits. Marlborough District Council has acknowledged the dilemma and has been working on a solution. It has been working with landowners to provide a mechanism to determine if works that landowners are wanting to undertake are necessary to minimise further impacts on property and the environment.

Aubrey Tai is the council’s Te Hoiere/Pelorus Catchment co-ordinator and says there needs to be a simplified and workable solution for landowners.

“If a slip occurs and blocks a waterway, most of them need to be dealt with fairly quickly to prevent further issues like increased bank erosion, land loss, etc. We are trying to develop a clear and practical process that can help expedite urgent work like this.”

But it is not a simple process and the council has been working through the legal issues of working with the Resource Management Act (RMA). Landowners will still need to get the go ahead from the council and there will be the usual rules to follow when they carry out the work. But Aubrey says it will enable landowners to get on with essential work created from the heavy rain event.

The RMA already has emergency provisions that cover urgent works to protect life and property during times of emergency, but there can be a lack of clarity about what is considered urgent work. Aubrey says the council is trying to make the process easier for landowners to know what they can do and get on with the job.