New Zealand Police staff in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville were called away from BAU in August to support the multi-national response to a double disaster – a volcanic eruption and floods.
The Bougainville Government declared a state of emergency in the wake of the eruption of Mt Bagana, the region’s most active volcano.
Ash contaminated water sources and food crops on both west and east coasts, with the west the worst hit, says Team Leader Shawn Rutene. Thousands of villagers were evacuated to care facilities.
To add to the challenge, Bougainville also experienced heavy rainfall which caused flooding and damaged roads, dwellings and crops.
“The affected areas of the west coast are only accessible by boat and reaching the coastal villages became impossible, as the unsettled weather caused large sea swells,” says Shawn.
“A state of emergency was declared and a combined effort began to get much-needed aid to the affected people.”
The USS America brought some serious hardware to the operation - the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, left, and Sikorsky CH-53 Stallion.
The state of emergency declared after the eruption began on 7 July was extended and broadened in August. New Zealand began a relief effort in response to a joint invitation from the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and the President of Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea.
They worked with the local disaster response team and representatives of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF to distribute aid from New Zealand and Australia.
A New Zealand Defence Force Hercules flew in eight diesel generators, mosquito nets, family hygiene kits, water purification tablets, shelter tool kits and lighting rigs. Police on the ground bought eight barrels of diesel to accompany the generators so they could be up and running immediately.
By coincidence, the aircraft carrier USS America and its support vessels were nearby, heading to Brisbane after conducting exercises in the area.
After a quick kōrero, the USS America and its 1500 personnel were diverted from their planned shore leave and moored 20km off Bougainville’s west coast. The ship’s MV-22 Osprey and larger CH-53K King Stallion helicopters were dispatched.
“All at once Buka Airport, which usually sees one flight a day, was alive with military helicopters and C-130 Hercules filling its runways,” says Shawn.
The helicopters took personnel from the disaster relief group into affected areas and ferried a Kiwi volunteer nurse and doctor to Piva.
Police staff coordinated unloading the NZDF Hercules - within 45 minutes – and the various agencies worked into the night to organise aid for distribution.
The following day two Ospreys loaded with aid were flown to Torokina with Shawn and Rhys on board to do the official handover from the New Zealand Government.
Local people poured in to greet the crew and to help unload. Everyone chipped in, says Shawn, including US Marine Corps CO Colonel Matthew Danner, and it was rewarding to see local people, Kiwis and American personnel working side by side.
The aid supplies were greatly appreciated by local people.
Shawn says the local people were extremely appreciative and presented representatives of Police, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, USAID and US military with gifts at a dinner in their honour.
“They completed a celebratory dance for all parties and the New Zealand Police responded in the only the way a Kiwi knows, with a rousing haka which bought the house down.
“It was such a rewarding experience for all involved to be able to support the good work of the local disaster response team. While it was away from our BAU, it completely enhanced New Zealand Police’s reputation in Bougainville.”
Shawn paid tribute to the other members of Police’s Bougainville contingent - Sean Midgley, Matthew Prendergast, Theresa William and Andrew Bell - who kept on with BAU and maintained a reassuring presence in Arawa and Buin as he and Rhys worked on the relief operation from Buka.
He acknowledged Senior Advisor Deb Gower – who has since ended her Bougainville deployment - who began the initial planning as he was out of the country in the early stages, and the support of the New Zealand High Commission in Port Moresby. “It was a real team effort.”
With the worst of the crisis passed, scientists are assessing Mt Bagana and whether it is safe for people to return to their villages. The most recent reports indicated the volcano was still venting ash.