Coastguard North Canterbury put to the test by floods
While people throughout the Canterbury region fled from rising flood waters on Sunday, a unique and highly specialised volunteer Coastguard crew were running towards them.
Coastguard North Canterbury’s Swift Water Rescue Team had an extremely busy day on Sunday as flood waters rose rapidly and lives and livelihoods became endangered.
At 9.50am the crew received a call from Police asking for the Swift Water Rescue Team to assist in rescuing a man stranded in a tree surrounded by flood water in Ashburton. Minutes from arriving at the scene the crew were stood down by Police as the man had been rescued.
On their way back to base, Police advised the team to stand by as they may be required to assist in rescuing a person from a flooded vehicle seen floating down the Okuku River. Once again they were asked to stand down as the occupant had managed to escape from the vehicle.
The team returned to base and after a de-brief all made their way home to check on their own families and properties.
Around 8.30pm on Sunday night the Team were once again called by Police to help rescue another man stuck up a tree close to Darfield. Fire and Emergency (FENZ), Police and St John Ambulance personnel were also on the scene.
With the help of FENZ the Swift Water Rescue Team set up equipment and lighting while safety watchers with radios and throw bags were positioned further downstream.
With the raging flood waters making communication almost impossible, the group of rescuers devised a plan which involved five of the Swift Water Team, equipped with a swift water sled and ropes, entering the water downstream.
Despite best efforts the plan proved to be unsuccessful as the current was too strong for the crew to progress far enough out to reach the victim.
The team then formulated a second plan which involved setting up the Swift Water Rescue Team’s IRB 70 meters downstream with the intention of driving it upstream to the man.
At this point the crews were notified that a NH-90 military helicopter had arrived and the plan was put on hold.
Half an hour later the helicopter had made several attempts to reach the man with no success due to the driving wind, rain and obstruction of trees.
It was decided to abandon further attempts to rescue the man by helicopter as it had another emergency to attend. The Helicopter planned to return as soon as it had completed that task.
As the helicopter pulled away, the man jumped out of the tree into the rising flood water which quickly took him downstream.
The downstream safety parties attempted to toss throw bags attached to lines to the man as he washed past them, but were unsuccessful.
An attempt was then made to reach him using a tethered swimmer before the man drifted out of sight and into the darkness.
Meanwhile the helicopter turned back and joined the shore crews searching for him downstream. Thankfully the helicopter spotted the man about 500 meters downstream clinging to another tree.
A helicopter crewman was lowered down and grabbed the man from the tree and delivered him to the shore crew.
He had severe hypothermia and by using the sled as a makeshift stretcher, the crew carried him back to a waiting ambulance for further treatment and transportation to hospital. He was discharged on Monday morning, lucky to be alive.
After the harrowing ordeal the Swift Water Rescue Team returned to base at Kaiapoi arriving well after midnight.
“It was a big day for the Swift Water Team, battling the elements to get to where they were needed throughout the region,” said Rob Creasy, Coastguard Unit Support Manager. “The last incident in particular really pushed them to their limits with the force of water preventing them from carry out the job they train so hard to do.”
“Whilst their own families, homes and properties were feeling the full effects of the storm, the Coastguard North Canterbury volunteer Swift Water Rescue Team ventured out into the unknown to help their community,” said Callum Gillespie, Coastguard New Zealand CEO. “We are immensely proud of the work these highly trained volunteers do to be there when people need it most.”