July 30, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. The 1992 Canterbury snowstorms


By Clive Dalton

Book of words and pictures by Phillip King, 1992.  ISBN 0-473-01654-0
First snow emergency, Tuesday July 14, 1992
I was working for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) in the MAF Quality Management division (called MAFQual), for the MAF Northern North Island region, which was cut off from the Southern North Island business by a line through Lake Taupo.  My fancy title was ‘Information Co-ordinator’ as we couldn’t think of anything better.

MAFQual covered the Dairy, Meat, Animal Health and Welfare, Ag Quarantine and Horticulture businesses, so when the first snow storm started in Canterbury on July 14 1992, I was ordered by our MAFQual Regional Director to go to Christchurch to help with media issues, as the emergency got wide coverage, mainly because of the good copy and pictures that dead and dying animals, and massive snow drifts provided.  The snow was mainly on the Canterbury foothills, so didn’t get down to any depth at street level in Christchurch, or to sea level on farms on the plains.

Nobody from Head Office went to Christchurch, which was normal, as they assumed they were far too important to leave their HO posts, and possibly get wet, cold and dirty.  And of course, the bosses had to be close to the Minister incase a ‘Ministerial’ arrived from parliament which had to be attended to immediately, incase there was a question in the House about an issue, and the snow crisis was certainly that. The HO bureaucrats preferred to be filmed making statements from behind their big power desks next to their computers, rather than from behind a snowdrift.  It was fatal if they were asked to be filmed while typing, as most of them could only pick with two fingers while searching the keyboard.

I had no winter clothing for a snow event, so I borrowed son Nigel’s blue ski jacket.  I’m not sure now how I collected it from him on the way to the snow.  But I was certainly grateful for it.  I had plenty of beanies.

MAF HQ at Amberley
Christchurch airport was open, so there was no problem getting there.  A MAF colleague met me and drove me to Amberley to the offices of the Hurunui District Council, which was the snow emergency HQ.  I remember lugging my Apple II Mac computer and dot matrix printer with me.  Apple had made a large square padded bag for the computer but the printer weighed a tonne and had to be carried separately.  It was an ugly bit of gear.

It was all action at Amberley, and my job was to sit by the phone and log all calls from the media, deal with them if I could, and if it required more expert comment, I had to find the appropriate person.  I had also to find contacts where any of the media wanted to take photos or film.  I had to keep in constant telephone contact with Head Office to keep everyone informed, especially with the Director General Dr Russell Ballard’s Director of Corporate Communications – Robert Brewer. 

At the end of a long day I was accommodated in a freezing Unit No 1 at the Delhaven Motel, a few hundred yards from the office.  When I got there in the dark after work around 7pm it was like a blast freezer. I can’t remember where I got food from for an evening meal – probably takeaways. The Unit supplied breakfast.

Key Farm Advisors
The key MAF people on the job were the local Farm Advisory staff, who were both out in the field checking what was going on and what was needed, and then making arrangements from HQ to ensure it happened.  The key man was Terry Donaldson, as he had been a Farm Advisory Officer in the old MAF days so he knew farms and farmers.

Terry had spent many years in the North Island and then moved to Fairlie, where he gained plenty of experience of snow and the problems it brings.  It would have been a much bigger disaster for MAF if the adviser in Christchurch had never dealt with snow before. 

Telephone contact with farmers was a major problem as the snow had brought the lines down.  It was not the age of cellphones, so many farms were completely cut off.

Iroquois choppers
It was here where the Royal NZ Air Force helicopters came into play, both to contact isolated farms and then provide hay to stock when and where they could be found.  The noise of the Iroquois choppers coming and going was like a Vietnam War movie – as these 30 year-old machines were the same models as used then.

The mess that the hay made inside the machines was amazing – hay seeds everywhere sucked in by the rotor vortex, and goodness knows how long it took to clean them out.  There were plenty of good stories of city folk and professionals taking time off to go snow raking in the high country, and people saving their lawn clippings to give to farmers to feed stock – not a good idea.

The worst of the crisis was over in a week and I flew home on Saturday 19 July.  Before that I remember grabbing a MAF car and driving north for a wee tour, but things seemed to be under control on most farms from the road.  Everybody assumed that there would be no more problems for the winter and that was it.  I took the next week off work as time in lieu.

Second snow emergency, Friday August 28, 1992
Everyone was badly caught out when it happened again, and especially in August, which was supposed to be spring!  The meteorological event responsible was a deep warm low approaching land from the east of Canterbury, spiraling in to meet the cold air blast coming directly up from the Antarctic. This resulted in an enormous dump of snow over most of the South Island, with the worst being in Canterbury and Marlborough.  There was a level metre of snow on the streets of Christchurch, with enormous drifts where the wind had blown.

Rapid snow dump
It all happened in 24 hours on Thursday August 27 and on the next day, there was a major crisis to deal with, although warnings had gone out on the Wednesday about approaching snow likely.  Again, I was ordered back to Christchurch and flew from Hamilton to Wellington with old faithful Apple II computer.  I didn’t take the printer this time, as it was decided to hire one locally which saved a lot of weight in my luggage

When I got word on the Thursday, I went out and bought a warm coat at Rod and Gun no less, and charged it to MAFQual, which I could do as I was allowed to have a MAF Credit Card.  This time I was going prepared.  I even sewed a MAF logo on the chest to be seen in TV interviews which I did a few of.

Christchurch airport closed
When I got to Wellington airport to check in for Christchurch I was told that all flights were cancelled and Christchurch airport was snowed in.  There was no way they could have prepared for this.  I seemed to be the only one in the old tin shed of the Wellington terminal in those days.  So I phoned Head Office to tell them the story and was looking forward to going home. 

No such luck.  I was told to proceed to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter base on the other side of the main runway at Wellington airport, and meet Toby ?? the top rescue pilot who was going to Christchurch to assist with any emergencies.  I needed food, so I went to the Koro Club, which was the only place open, and I joined up without official permission – again using my MAF Credit Card.  I was in a strong position to tell any of my managers who didn’t approve of this to get lost!  I knew that they all viewed themselves important enough to be members, and on this occasion so did I! Later when I was found out when Director General Russell Ballard had a purge of Koru club membership, I had my card cancelled!

I stuffed my travel bag and computer into a tiny luggage hole on the side or the chopper, and got strapped in sitting on a hard bench-like seat behind the pilot where a stretcher would sit, and we lifted off over the city to Cook Straight heading for Blenheim to pick up a TV1 crew.  I had never been in a chopper before, and not in the wind over Cook Straight, but it wasn’t so bad, and going up and down over the hills at low level was very interesting seeing everything on farms at close quarter as we hedge-hopped all the way.

Blenheim to Christchurch
After picking up the crew of camera and sound person at Blenheim airport, and cramming the three of us along the hard seat behind the pilot, we headed for the coast and followed it all the way to Christchurch, only leaving it to turn inland to the airport.  The wind from the sea kept blasting the chopper inland with unforeseen surges, along with a plenty of ups and downs too.  I’m not a good flyer in normal conditions but survived this – just hanging on and trying to forget the pain in my bum.

There was no way anyone could move to ease a backside, which got more and more painful with no cushion to damp the pain. There was nothing to do but grin and bear it –looking ahead, hanging on and contemplating what we would find at the other end.

Eventually the airport appeared, with all planes at rest and covered in snow as we headed for the helicopter base beside the main terminal. What a relief for my backside!  We staggered out into one metre of snow everywhere where it had not been cleared.  I phoned the MAF office in town and somebody came to pick me up. Householders had made snowmen all the way down the middle of the road from the airport into town which had been cleared for minimal traffic – deep snow on all roofs and garden trees festooned with snow.  It was silent and nobody was about, but plenty of smoke emerging from chimneys.

MAF briefing
In the MAF office, I got a desk sorted, was briefed on where things were at and met the team – again thankfully led by Terry Donaldson.  MAFQual was so lucky to have Terry as a Regional Manager, and the July event had certainly taught everyone what to expect. But this time it was worse, as a greater area was affected right down to Timaru and beyond.  I was directed to my digs at the Carlton Mill Lodge in Colombo Street, which was a 10-minute walk away.  Nobody else was to be seen on the streets.

It was all on again with wide media interest, especially when the number of sheep and cattle deaths were available from some areas.  The media of course didn’t want to see or hear about the number of ewes and lambs that had been saved, they wanted to know about deaths and get pictures, especially of the large number of dead new-born lambs that where slid of tipping trucks into large holes.

Pre-lamb shearing
What made things worse and increased death rate, was the standard practice of pre-lamb shearing which was supposed to reduce lamb deaths. The theory was that a shorn ewe would feel cold, and then move to shelter taking her lambs with her.  High country Merinos are generally not pre-lamb shorn, but then they had the problem of snow balling up on their long fleeces, especially on their bellies, making it difficult for them to move.   The high ewe death rate caused by pre-lambing shearing was severely criticised by the public, and farmers’ justifications for it didn’t go down well at all.

Many sheep were buried because the snow was drifting, and when they went to shelter among the trees of the shelter belts, they didn’t know the theory that the maximum shelter area is 1.5 times the height of the trees – so was out in the paddock. They went into the bottom of the trees where massive drifts built up and buried them.  Many were never found alive.

 Volunteer snow rakers
Again, volunteers from town from all sorts of businesses turned out to help farmers ‘snow rake’, and this was a great news item.  I was full time sitting by the phone logging calls for Head Office evidence of my antics.   The phone would ring every 3-4 minutes with queries from all over.  Again, downed phone lines caused serious problems for communicating with farms.

I remember Paul Holmes from 1ZB calling for an update and comment, and even complimented me on the way we were covering things!  I remember a phone call during the night from the BBC asking if the high death rate among lambs would put up the price of NZ (Canterbury) lamb in British supermarkets.  That was a ‘hot potato’, which after a brief comment of saying no, I referred it to Head Office pronto!

Banks peninsula
I managed to escape my desk on a couple of occasions to have a fly around with the Farm Advisory Officers in the region.  We sat three in row in the chopper looking out of the main windscreen.  One trip was over Bank’s Peninsula, which showed the depth of snow and the few stock that were visible.

Many cattle were lost on the peninsula, buried in deep snowdrifts and dying of dehydration, as cattle unlike sheep don’t eat snow to get water. One farmer looking for his cattle fell through a drift, and would have never been found and died there, if he hadn’t found a tree to climb up and emerge again and survive.

The other trip was south to have a look around where we landed in the main street in Ashburton, as there was certainly no traffic and very few people who came to view our arrival.  We hovered over farms and Toby tipped the chopper up on its nose so we could all see down into sheep yards. This was a bit of a shock the first time!

The days in the office were long and tiring, and I bough takeaways for each evening meal, before turning up the heaters and going to bed after a nightly hot bath.  Thankfully the power was on in the city but not in many rural areas, as engineers couldn’t get through the snow to fix things.

End of stint
I eventually flew home on Friday 4 September 1992 after 8 days on the job.  Head office and my mangers seemed to be satisfied with my efforts.  By mid 1992 MAFQual developed severe financial problems, and I was invited to reapply for my job, with a 25% drop in salary.  I reapplied, but soon started looking for a new challenge

On Jan 1 1993 I left MAFQual to start work at The Waikato Polytechnic as a tutor in agriculture.

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