How Volunteering Reduced the Impact of the Rena Oil Spill: Community Responses to an Environmental Disaster

August 2015 (VOL. 33, NO. 2)

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Following the Rena oil spill off the Bay of Plenty coast in New Zealand and subsequent volunteer clean-up programme, we interviewed 39 volunteers and 9 people involved in the volunteer organisation. We aimed to learn about people’s responses to an environmental disaster, what factors motivate people to volunteer, and how volunteering after a disaster assists individuals and communities to adjust to changing circumstances. The oil spill had an emotional, physical, cultural, social and spiritual impact on both individuals and communities. People were motivated to volunteer from a sense of duty and history of volunteering, a concern and sense of collective responsibility for the environment for current and future generations, a desire to contribute to their community, and to connect with others and cope with their negative responses. There was a strong typical New Zealand “can do” response in that volunteers expressed they had time and capability to help so they just wanted to get on with it. After volunteering, most participants reported a sense of satisfaction, renewed social ties, and renewed optimism. The clean-up programme brought communities together, resulting in timely removal of oil from beaches and coastline and demonstrating that citizen volunteers can contribute to oil spill mitigation.