The missing minutes in the Auckland flood response

By Tracy Watkins 30 January 2023, 1:00PM

The costs are still being counted but we already know that Auckland has never seen anything like it. All hell broke loose after record smashing rainfall hit our biggest city and no-one seemed to be ready for it.

Anniversary weekend will be remembered for the terrible sight of homes sliding off hillsides, cars being carried away by floodwaters, and people being pulled from their windows. The costs will be huge - both financially, and personally. Because for some, it will also be a time of mourning. Four people are thought to have died.

And so now the cleanup begins. And the questions. This was an unprecedented level of rainfall - history-making in fact - so the response was never going to be perfect.

But was the response from Auckland City Council and mayor Wayne Brown everything Aucklanders deserved and were desperately looking for as the city descended into chaos?

There are other questions. Has Auckland’s infrastructure been badly exposed after years of underfunding and haphazard decision-making?

Did the government, and the new prime minister, respond as quickly as they should?

To the last question first: Yes, probably - but they could only respond as fast as Auckland city allowed them. Ministers spent too many hours with their hands tied waiting on the Mayor and Auckland city to declare a state of emergency.

It was only then that ministers and their officials regrouped in the Beehive bunker, where efforts to deal with all the big, catastrophic events like floods and earthquakes are coordinated, and were finally able to put all the resources that Auckland needed into play.

The frustration of ministers was palpable on the night, and not just them - National leader Christopher Luxon pleaded with Mayor Brown to declare a State of Emergency.

Auckland councillors all but did the same via their social media channels, desperately trying to fill the void left by Brown and local civil defence officials, who also went inexplicably silent for a few hours.

Transport Minister Michael Wood publicly slapped down the NZTA social media team for clocking off early and got them back on the tools. Questions to the Prime Minister’s Office about the government response, meanwhile, were met with a polite reminder that the Mayor had to declare a state of emergency before they could step in. But privately they must have been fuming.

Governments are judged by their handling of disasters; this was a new prime minister’s first big test in an election year and his hands were tied. Till Brown moved the government couldn’t send in the cavalry.

The day after, no-one has managed to explain the time it took to declare a state of emergency.

A blustering and belligerent Brown claimed “processes” stood in the way but has floundered trying to explain what those were.

People were clinging to their cars, and hanging out of windows waiting for help from friends and strangers, while the suddenly homeless were wondering where they would spend the night. What was the downside in declaring a state of emergency sooner rather than later?

In those crucial few hours when no-one knew what was going on Aucklanders were let down.

Both the government and Brown have promised a review.

That’s good – but for now it’s not the most urgent thing. What matters is getting Auckland, and hurting Aucklanders, back on their feet, and as soon as is humanly possible. This is a hammer blow just as the city was finding its mojo again after successive lockdowns.

But eventually the questions will need to be answered. Because we’d all like to know what happened during those missing minutes and hours.

By Tracy Watkins 30 January 2023, 1:00PM
Samoa Observer

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