Former Hawke's Bay LandSAR volunteers say lack of support drove them to quit

There have been a number of resignations at Hawke's Bay Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) following Cyclone Gabrielle last year.

Former volunteers say it's due to a loss of trust and a lack of support. Locals, including LandSAR volunteers, were in the floodwaters for hours rescuing people and making life-and-death decisions.

CEO Carl McOnie acknowledges that a handful of volunteers were working around the clock in the first few days of the cyclone's aftermath, who were joined by more volunteers later on.

"I know my volunteers in HB did an exceptional job, probably above and beyond that initial search planning period," he told Newshub.

But since then a number of those volunteers have quit. One of them, who didn't want to be named, told Newshub it was a privilege to help so many people in those initial days, however the organisation was not supportive.

"Overshadowing that was the lack of respect and empathy from some Hawke's Bay LandSAR towards volunteers who were in the frontline in the first few days in terms of the personal impact on them and their families," they said.

And following that traumatic time, they haven't been involved in any debriefs.

"Not having the opportunity to have a debrief or meaningful support has actually been a most harrowing and horrible experience. There is now a loss of trust that LandSAR would support my personal well-being," they said.

"I had always thought that we would be well supported and listened to, but that was not my experience."

McOnie admits there are problems with LandSAR in Hawke's Bay and he is aware of the resignations.

"Yeah... I'm aware of internal issues that the LandSAR HB committee is dealing with," he said.

He said more wellbeing support has been developed for volunteers.

"Our peer support kicked off about six months ago and that was a lesson we learnt out of Gabrielle about having people on the ground at a local level that can support," he said.

It's not the only area for improvement though. The volunteer told Newshub they feared if another cyclone hit, LandSAR wouldn't be any better off due to the lack of debriefing.

"The learning opportunities, from all of those who were in the frontline on the first few days, have not been captured is a huge loss for LandSAR and means that the organisation is not well placed for future events," they said.

The organisation said there have been discussions between executive and local committees about its response, and in December it asked the Government for more funding to provide better equipment, training and resources.

"So they certainly know that the search and rescue sector as a whole can support Civil Defence," said McOnie.

LandSAR wanted to bring more volunteers into Hawke's Bay during the cyclone - but McOnie told Newshub the offer was turned down by the National Emergency Management Agency.

"Having a large number of volunteers brought in was not something they (NEMA) had the logistics to be able to do," he said.

NEMA declined Newshub's request for an interview - saying it wouldn't be appropriate while the Government's inquiry was underway.

Two separate inquiries are due to be released next month, one focused on Hawke's Bay Civil Defence, and the other on the entire emergency response to Cyclone Gabrielle and Auckland Floods.

Emergency Management Minister Mark Mitchell currently has the draft report.

"I anticipate having read the draft report that we'll make some changes. We have to have our readiness, response and recovery well coordinated at a central level but also a local level," he said.

LandSAR falls under the Ministry of Transport, which couldn't confirm if it had received LandSAR's request, but Transport Minister Simeon Brown said he appreciates the work the organisation does.

"It's vitally important they're supported and resourced to do their job," he said.

"Currently, there is a Government inquiry into the response to the North Island severe weather events that is due to report back by the end of March.

"Cabinet will then consider its recommendations to determine what should be undertaken to prepare for future emergency events."