By Kiri Gillespie
"It will take time."
With those words, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Whakatāne first responders there was no time limit to processing the trauma of what they experienced nine months ago.
The Prime Minister was in Whakatāne yesterday as part of her campaign in the lead up to this year's general election.
It was the first time she had returned to the town since the Whakaari/White Island tragedy, in which 21 people from four countries were killed.
She was joined by East Coast candidate Kiritapu Allan and Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey.
Ardern met the town's mayor Judy Turner and first responders to the December 9 eruption at the Whakatāne Library and Exhibition Centre.
There, she was greeted by about 60 representatives from St John, Fire and Emergency NZ, Whakatāne Hospital, Coastguard and Volcanic Air.
The room was mostly quiet and some of the first responders watched on with a harrowed look on their faces. Others appeared to be close to tears and fidgeting.
Ardern asked a group of people from Whakatāne Hospital what they thought about Covid-19s impact on the community, and how it affected their ability to recover from Whakaari.
Bay of Plenty District Health Board team leader, emergency planning, Josephine Peters said: "I think it has been hijacked.
"The community has gone through so much here in the Eastern Bay, not just with Whakaari but with Covid as well."
Whakatāne emergency department clinical lead Tamsin Davies said the recovery was going to be a "huge process" but there had been a strong support network forged between emergency workers who responded to Whakaari.
Ardern then addressed the room, thanking those who helped in those hours, days and weeks after the eruption. She told them to take as much time as they need to focus on getting through the trauma of Whakaari.
"The last thing any of us want is for another tragedy to steal the ability for people to be able to process what happened. Never feel like you can't keep coming back and saying 'actually, we need a bit more support'."
The gathering was then closed to public and media while Ardern met with the group privately before hosting a media conference a short while later by the Whakatāne River.
There she paid tribute to Ngāti Awa which played such a pivotal role in helping those affected by Whakaari.
When asked by NZME about calls for a Royal Commission into Whakaari, Ardern said she was reluctant to double up on investigations into the tragedy.
WorkSafe and the Coroner were already investigating.
When asked whether there was a conflict of interest regarding WorkSafe's involvement, Ardern said she had faith the appropriate questions will be answered.
Hours later National leader Judith Collins joined the call for a Royal Commission.
Members of the Whakatāne community joined the media conference, including a practice nurse who asked when they would get a fair pay deal.
Ardern replied that negotiations were frequent and ongoing but in regards to pay parity, she was unable to interfere with DHBs.
Turner told NZME the effects from Whakaari were still deeply felt by many, particularly the first responders.
"This has changed their lives forever and to have that acknowledged and remembered is special.
"The first responders saw things and dealt with things they never thought they would have to."
Ardern's visit was a salve, of sorts, for some, she said.
"I think sometimes there is comfort in having the pain acknowledged. As a community what happened sits in our hearts and our minds."
Turner referred to trying to watch a short documentary on Whakaari on television a few months ago but found she was still so affected by the disaster, she had to turn the TV off.
"I spoke to others and so many people had the same reaction. Maybe we never will be able to process it, maybe we will."
Local men and tour guides Tipene Maangi and Hayden Marshall-Inman were among those who died. Marshall-Inman's body has not been found.
Of the survivors, dozens suffered life-changing injuries and spent many months in hospital needing surgery and skin grafts for burns.
"Love you auntie"
Toots, cheers, and calls of "Love you auntie" could be wherever Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern went in Whakatāne yesterday.
The Prime Minister spent time with first responders to Whakaari before visiting Te Puna o Ora Mataatua, where she was serenaded by joyous waiata that rang out from the King St building.
Te Puna o Ora Mataatua is a health, youth, social and employment provider looking after people throughout the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
In recent months, it has also become the main organisation managing Covid-19 testing. This included mobile testing trips to isolated communities such as Lake Waikaremoana.
Ardern was greeted by a large crowd of talkative and excited people who swarmed to the entry of the centre trying to get a video. Joyful waiata rang out from Te Puna Ora o Mataatua as more than 100 staff formally welcomed the Prime Minister, Coffey and Allan.
The organisation had 550 employees and helped about 110 young people a year.
Chief executive Chris Tooley said: "We've pretty much wrapped every kind of service we could [together] ... and it works."
Staff shared with Ardern examples of their work and experiences.
Te Puna Ora o Mataatua board chairwoman Fiona Wiremu said Ardern's visit was a wonderful acknowledgment of their work.
"She sees people on their ground roots level. You can see from the people outside that she would stop and talk to them. Her visit is recognition of all of their hard work."
Staff at the centre have been working 24/7 testing people for Covid, Wiremu said.
Wiremu said some staff didn't see their children for three weeks during the first wave of Covid.
"They did it for their whanāu, their people, their community. We are really grateful that [Ardern] acknowledges that. Everything she does, she sees the people."
Ardern also visited the Whakatāne Mill in Coastlands.