Rena research update

1 June 2016

Rena cleanup

Cleaning up after Rena: Sarah Lockwood has researched Gen Y volunteers during the Rena crisis.

Almost five years after the grounding of the MV Rena on Astrolabe Reef -- New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster, a new body of research explores lessons learned and the ensuing chemical, toxicological, social and ecological studies of contamination and environmental recovery. Legacy issues remain, but our state of preparedness for future maritime disasters is now greatly enhanced after the scientific work done in response to Rena.

As part of the latest research published in the Royal Society’s New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, Tauranga PhD student and Fulbright scholar Sarah Lockwood looked at the unique communication and organisational drivers and dynamics of Generation Y volunteers during the Rena crisis.

She says there is extremely limited research related to youth volunteers (aged 16-29) who engage with crisis response.

Volunteers in a crisis

“While my PhD specifically looks at volunteer responses to an environmental crisis -- which offers its own unique set of attractions to youth, the research is also far more wide reaching as it applies their motivation to contributing their skills to communities at a much greater scale,” Sarah says.

Her study addressed two core research areas: 1) how volunteering was conceptualised by youth volunteers involved in the Rena crisis and 2) how the volunteers communicated and self-organised during the crisis. Ultimately the research findings illustrate the need to find ways to validate the contributions of youth volunteers in response to crises, and manage tensions between the Gen Y demographic group and official organisational responses.

The self-organising behaviours of the youth volunteers emerged out of a resistance towards structured responses, and as a way of youth being able to practise creativity, innovation and networking skills without restriction, says Sarah.

“Responding to the public pressure from irritated locals wanting to be involved in the clean-up, Maritime New Zealand incorporated volunteers into its official response plan by establishing ‘Operation Beach Clean-Up’ (OBC). This was a controlled means of incorporating volunteers.

“The 38 youth participants I interviewed had become frustrated with OBC’s administrative and structured processes. As a result, significant numbers of youth volunteers initiated their own self-organised volunteer efforts. These ranged from informal gatherings of Facebook friends for beach cleans, surf groups rallying together and cleaning debris in acutely affected nearby islands, to more formal, organised fundraisers and the provision of support for under-resourced areas of the community. ”

Sarah says ultimately, both types of responses were successful in their own ways.

“Self-organised efforts were particularly attractive among youth volunteers because they offered flexibility, required minimal administrative processes, and fostered an environment of innovation and creativity. The volunteers’ youthful energy and technological aptitude additionally drove their self-organised responses.”

Technology's role in the clean-up

Technology played a significant role in the self-organising, as nearly all efforts were initiated via digital media. The creation of both physical and virtual spaces provided youth volunteers with areas to communicate their feelings and actions about the crisis, without censorship from officials. Sarah says it was also a digital space to congregate and discuss ways of how to get involved. A prime example of this was the Rena Kai Run Facebook page.

“In response to a throwaway comment from a contract worker cleaning the beach that ‘he hadn't eaten all day’, an 18-year-old female created a Facebook page to draw attention to this issue. Within three days over 435 people had joined the page and were assisting efforts in collecting donated and purchased food from the community and delivering it to the hordes of hungry contract and volunteer workers.”

Sarah recently presented at the People in Disasters Conference in Christchurch, where she says, overwhelmingly the message was clear. “First responders, who are typically unskilled, volunteering public are incredibly important to the response outcome and their stories, experiences and processes need to be captured for future learning and integration.”

Sarah hopes her research will help demonstrate the high level organisational, communicative, and technical skills, intellect, and networking prowess that youth volunteers can offer to crisis response.

“Youth volunteers often face a conundrum whereby commonly held negative associations of their age-group obscure the specific and often unique forms in which they might make a voluntary contribution to crisis events.  My agenda is to replace the negative connotations and archaic stereotypes that are often associated with youth volunteers and replace these with the proven, highly effective solutions, initiatives, and skills sets that are proven to match the demands of crisis events.”  Sarah's report can be read here: