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Source: Auckland Council

Auckland Emergency Management recently gave an award to a community organisation for recognising the outstanding work of volunteers who made a difference to the welfare and safety of more than 2000 people in west Auckland, Napier, and Hastings during severe flooding in 2023.

Ranui Baptist Community Care (RBCC) was the award recipient, and RBCC manager Elesha Thomas remembers 27 January 2023, as the day her community became ‘trapped underwater’.

Roads turned to rivers, and cars and infrastructure were washed away. Water gushed into homes, and many whānau in west Auckland became homeless. Terrified, they walked through flood waters with nowhere to go and holding what few possessions they could carry.

“We were the first facility in west Auckland to open its doors, even before Civil Defence. We provided a haven for people searching for shelter, a safe space to dry out, get kai, clothes, bedding and a mattress to sleep,” says Ms Thomas.

Elesha posted a message on social media encouraging anyone who needed help to visit the church. Word got around, and soon she was caring for hundreds of people uprooted from homes in Rānui and the wider west Auckland area.

“I worked 48 hours without a break or sleep while my kids camped in my office. We were so overwhelmed, I put out an SOS to recruit more volunteers,” she says.

The volunteers arrived, and drove around the worst affected streets, checking on families, and evacuating those in danger to the church. They even managed to save some critical family possessions.

“It was a surprise to discover whānau, who had escaped their flooded home, sheltering in cars on the street with dangerously rising flood waters. We just said jump in our car, we’ll find space for you!” explains Ms Thomas.

Around 2am that morning, Auckland Council Local Board Members and Councillors visited the church and witnessed first-hand the trauma and devastation that unfolded from the deluge.

RBCC provided relief to over 1000 people who used their facility over the next 12 weeks.

The relief came in many forms, including showers, toilets, free meals, beds, transitional housing, donations of household goods and food parcels. They ran kids workshops to offer parents respite so they could sort out their damaged house. The church op-shop opened its doors to the public 24/7 and made all items free of charge.

“We also became a sanctuary for power napping. Parents worked shifts to guard their family home and contents from looters. While one was on night watch, the other would come to us for a much-needed power nap,” says Ms Thomas.

The volunteer team worked tirelessly to secure essential goods donated by local businesses and community groups for families in need, including mattresses, food parcels, toiletries, baby food, nappies, torches, generators, industrial fans, cleaning items and more.

“There are so many generous souls in our community giving support. On numerous nights, the Waitakere Indian Association arrived with hot cooked Indian curry for volunteers and families at our facility. Staff from local schools joined our volunteer team, and we offered a space for media to camp out in our facility,” says Ms Thomas.

The volunteers from RBCC were such an organised, well-oiled machine that even government services took notice of their success.

“We got a call from Auckland Transport requesting we transport pellets of food from PAK’n Save to helicopters at Wynyard Quarter for the Piha community. Landslides from Cyclone Gabrielle cut them off from the rest of Auckland.

“The New Zealand Army asked for our support to work in the Hastings and Napier distribution centre when the storms hit the Hawkes Bay region, and we were happy to help,” says Ms Thomas.

Ms Thomas and her team of volunteers were humble about their award from Auckland Emergency Management.

“When you see an emergency and people need help, you can twiddle your fingers or cut the red tape to create action. But when people care, everyone mucks in to offer support because it is a humanitarian thing to do. The kindness of the human spirit rises to the top during a disaster like this,” says Ms Thomas.