A quirk of timing left all Auckland’s institutions on the back foot. But social media, particularly TikTok, graphically showed just how bad the situation was.
Late afternoon on a Friday is known as time to quietly drop bad news. You have the plausible deniability of it happening during work hours, but knowing that most of the weekend newspapers will be full and journalists will have headed home. That goes doubly so ahead of a long weekend. It’s easy to spot a deliberately timed release, often from some branch of politics or the state.
Yesterday’s torrential downpour came right into that slot and it was just very bad luck. Rain which had been heavy the whole day built into a profound and sustained intensity which was unlike any precipitation event in living memory for Auckland. The data bears this out – Tāmaki Makaurau experienced more rainfall in 24 hours than at any equivalent period on record. This January has now recorded more rainfall than any month prior – and it’s still raining.
The city’s infrastructure collapsed in myriad ways. Motorways overflowed, with buses seen floating away. The airport not only flooded, but rising waters trapped thousands of people within its walls. Multiple supermarkets were inundated. Houses drifted off their foundations, and tragically there are two confirmed dead, with two still missing.
The city’s civic and political apparatus appeared paralysed too. The scheduled Elton John concert was only cancelled less than half an hour before it was scheduled to begin. The tens of thousands who had made it there were essentially trapped, with Auckland Transport having already noted that trains would not be running.
There was an air of political naivety, too. The country’s prime minister had been in office for just three days, and was hundreds of kilometres away in Wellington. Auckland mayor, Wayne Brown, was elected in October, and confoundingly waited until well after 9pm before declaring a state of emergency. Civil Defence and Waka Kotahi have no such excuse, and some channels were silent in the face of what is surely the most severe natural disaster to befall this city in decades.
Because of the quirk of timing, our major media institutions appeared thinly staffed and failed to interrupt scheduled programming. While both Newshub and 1 News had very strong packages, with drenched reporters standing in front of newly made lakes, neither had capacity to switch to rolling coverage, despite a situation unfolding which clearly warranted such a response. At the peak of the storm, when its precise nature was of maximum public interest, TVNZ 1 had Clark Gayford talking a couple through their home renovation.
This is not a critique of those organisations – they covered the story very well with the people they had to hand, and the great shrinking of revenues over the past two decades means that kind of failsafe staffing is fiscally irresponsible now. (Ironically the flooding might have been the best case yet for the RNZ-TVNZ merger, but has likely arrived far too late to alter its fate.) Both returned with 10.30pm bulletins which provided more context and startling imagery. Still, each turned to other stories before the first break.
The NZ Herald and Stuff both covered the story well through live updates, but it was only the following morning that the homepages finally had the density and texture of coverage the flooding demanded. Again, this was not a failure – it was a function of freakish timing and the financial impossibility of staffing in the face of the transfer of the advertising revenue which funds news to the likes of Google and Facebook. Radio might have been the medium which best adapted, with newbie Today FM particularly impressive.
Still, none could match the pace of social media, and this was a strange kind of triumph for user generated content. Each generation and different network had its own key platform. Whatsapp groups hummed with frequently-shared clips, Reddit sorted and elevated adroitly, while TikTok’s extraordinary algorithm immediately figured out that what scared and damp Aucklanders wanted was flood content, and it gave it to them in mass volume. (IG Reels was mainly vintage repurposed viral TikToks, as far as I can tell). While the city’s mayor prevaricated over whether to declare a state of emergency, its citizens watched their phones in horror as Auckland drowned under an unprecedented and vaguely biblical deluge.
This is not uncomplicated. Social media coverage of natural disasters has historically been accompanied by a large volume of viral hoaxes, which shows that the boring work of verifying footage before airing it – a necessity for news organisations – doesn’t happen on social platforms. News organisations also seek attribution, which is often difficult to ascertain at pace. Deprived of context, clips could easily generate more fear and irrational, even dangerous, responses than is desirable.
Yet the floods show unequivocally that we live in a world of immediate user generated coverage of unfolding disasters, and that our official communication infrastructure is a long way from ready to respond at the required pace. Even on the Friday evening of a long weekend, we’re entitled to expect better.
Below are a selection of the TikToks which swiftly achieved massive audiences and showed the unfolding nature of the disaster, while also showing how humans responded to it with humour, heart and horror.