The long-awaited review into the emergency response during the January Auckland floods has been released today. Stewart Sowman-Lund dissects the key findings.
The review ordered into the emergency response to the Auckland anniversary weekend flood has been released this afternoon, concluding that the response was slow and inadequate from the top down, and placing much of the blame on a lack of communication between officials and the mayor’s office.
The report, headed by former police commissioner Mike Bush, was ordered swiftly in the wake of the January 27 floods that claimed four lives. It was expected to be completed by early March but was bumped out due to the impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle. It was seen as necessary owing to widespread public criticism that Auckland mayor Wayne Brown was slow to act on the night of the floods, when no emergency alert was issued and a state of emergency wasn’t publicly declared until past 10pm, hours after homes, workplaces and streets across parts of the supercity had already been submerged in rushing floodwaters.
The 107-page report stated that a number of factors “aligned to create system failure” during the 12 hours of the initial emergency response. “Aucklanders did not receive the timely communications, leadership and practical support they had a right to expect in a crisis of this magnitude.”
A long list of “thematic findings” in the report’s summary describe how the Auckland Council’s emergency management system was “not prepared for an event of this magnitude and speed”, while “gaps in preparedness” were known to key council decision makers in advance. Senior leaders “underestimated the importance of their visible leadership roles” and there was a lack of “crisis leadership skills and operational experience” as well.
Of the mayor’s actions on the night of January 27, the report determined that the mayor’s decision to order a state of emergency “could and should have been made earlier”. The report suggested the state of emergency should have been declared at 5.58pm – the time when fire and emergency was reporting “mass evacuations” and “additional weather warnings”. That would have been several hours before the mayor signed off the declaration at 9.27pm, which in turn was nearly an hour before the public was informed.
“A timely declaration during daylight hours, accompanied by an emergency mobile alert, would have assisted the operational response and increased public safety by ensuring that Aucklanders understood the seriousness of the event.”
Emergency management leaders, council executives and the mayor’s office were also criticised for not having “fully appreciated the power of official public announcements, delivered with empathy, in providing reassurance, as well as practical information, to those impacted by frightening and dangerous events”.
There were also some communication issues that delayed the release of that emergency statement even further. “A completed declaration template was emailed to the mayor’s office at 9.25pm and signed by 9.27pm. The signed declaration was then provided by the mayor to the Public Information Manager (PIM) of AEM but was not posted until 10.17pm,” the report determined.
“The delay appears to have been because communications staff were waiting for approval of the accompanying media advisory and a quote from the mayor. The mayor’s staff were not aware of this until 10.02pm. The statement was approved, and a quote provided by 10.07pm.”
The report does, however, acknowledged that the mayor did sign the emergency declaration “immediately” after he was informed of the need for it – backing up his public statements in the days following the flood.
Communications on the night between the mayor’s office, elected members, the chair of local Civil Defence committee, the executive team and emergency management “were disjointed and suboptimal”, the report stated, and they “relied too heavily on individual initiative – such as that shown by the director governance – rather than on predesigned and pretested protocols”.
People also appear to have relied on assumptions. “For example, council executives and AEM staff appeared to assume that the mayor already understood the Auckland emergency management model, the process for making a declaration and the roles of key personnel. The mayor assumed that AEM was working the event from a sophisticated physical command centre; that they would brief him as needed and that roles and accountabilities in a time of crisis were clear and well understood.”
The mayor had also reportedly not received formal advice on Auckland’s emergency operational plans ahead of the flooding and “nor did we come across any protocols or procedures that identified who was responsible for advising the mayor on [Civil Defence emergency management].”
The report also highlighted a lack of advance preparedness within the council. There was no contingency plan for severe weather events, despite the ACDEM Group Plan being in force on the night of the floods. This documented noted that a contingency plan for flooding and a “super storm” was a “very high priority” for Auckland – but the report determined no contingency plan existed.
Officials were criticised for not working alongside Māori and Pasifika organisations, who mobilised on the ground “in spite of AEM rather than because of it”.
The report added: “This is in contrast to the approach taken in Northland, for example, where iwi/Māori regularly contribute to and review specific local response plans and where the use of marae as CDCs is standard.”
There are 17 key recommendations made by the report, including that a separate, urgent review be undertaken to examine Auckland Emergency Management’s “prevention, preparedness and planning” for future emergencies in Auckland. The emergency management structure within the council should also be clarified, in particular the operational relationships between key officials. There should also be a “more frequent schedule” of emergency management exercises and the induction process for a new mayor should include advice and briefing on both the emergency management system and how to “inform, advise, and provide assurance during emergency response”.
In a statement released alongside the report, mayor Brown accepted the findings and reiterated that he had “dropped the ball” during the floods. “The communications weren’t fast enough, and I was too slow to be seen. I stand by my previous apology to Aucklanders,” Brown said.
However, the mayor noted that the report confirmed he had signed the emergency declaration “immediately upon being advised of the need” for it. “I accept that I should have been more assertive in demanding information, so that I could provide Aucklanders with public safety advice, practical support, and reassurance. I assumed that the systems were better than they were.
“The preparation wasn’t good enough – that’s clear from the fact that some of the planned Civil Defence Centres flooded on the night which contributed to delays in establishing the sites. That just shouldn’t happen, and we need to make sure we can set-up those sites faster in future,” Brown said.
Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback said that he, the council’s executive leadership, and emergency management staff will consider the report’s findings, recommendations, and report back on an implementation plan.