The Auckland floods showed that community resilience needs investment, not budget cuts, argues Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Thirteen years ago, against much protest, the former National Government amalgamated eight city, district and regional councils into one Auckland Super City. The promise was efficiency, economies of scale, better and more integrated planning.
Three months ago, on the night of Friday, January 27, even from the vantage point of the mayor’s office on the 27th floor on Albert Street, you wouldn’t have seen the rapid flooding in former Waitākere, Manukau, Papakura, Franklin, North Shore and Rodney Council areas. Maybe, though, you would’ve had an eye on the deluge collecting above the concreted-over Waihorotiu stream on lower Queen Street.
Social media and citizen reporting beat all of the mainstream news outlets as the Northern Expressway and Airport flooded.
Unable to get an understanding of the situation through “official” channels of the mayor’s office, Auckland Emergency Management, Fire Emergency NZ (FENZ) or Civil Defence, I chanced a quick call with frontline firefighters. Since mid-afternoon, all hands had been on deck, many with makeshift equipment. It was the most calls for emergency assistance any of them had ever seen in their decades of experience.
Aucklanders across the internet were asking what on earth was happening.
As a non-executive, non-Government MP, there’s no special access to information. So you get creative. It was immediately clear sitting around and waiting for things to happen wasn’t going to solve the information vacuum.
I put on a raincoat and walked down to the FENZ offices at the back of the Pitt Street fire station. A Subway employee closing up the store asked me if I reckoned he would be able to get an Uber home. I suggested he might want to see if mates nearby could take him in for the night. Around the same time, my little sister sent me footage of Dominion Road flooding.
At FENZ, I asked where we were supposed to get clear information to communicate to the public. I was told there was going to be a meeting in the next hour and I couldn’t hang around.
That night, the same issues we regularly see unfolding in slow motion with underfunded front-line public services and bureaucratic disconnect were supercharged. Communities were directly experiencing a crisis abstract and removed from the personal experience of those in charge.
While “young people” have long been berated for an apparent preference for TikTok over talk, the supposed grown ups in charge of our city services seemed incapable of picking up the phone to those on the frontline to ask what was happening and what they needed. All the while, social media communicated more rapidly and clearly about where and when the flooding unfolded.
We saw the systems that worked. It was the community.
Mike Bush’s independent review of the response would later reflect:
Over the period encompassed by this review, Māori and Pasifika organisations mobilised on the ground to support community responses. Marae provided support to local whānau in need. Community organisations activated to support those displaced from their homes… This community mobilisation appears to have been largely in spite of [Auckland Emergency Management] rather than because of it.
Of course, no one can change the past. Aucklanders are interested in the leadership and responsibility that will be undertaken to outline clear, measurable steps to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. That means a lot more than addressing the structural deficiencies in crisis mode communications. It means resourcing the services and systems that do the work.
That’s why it’s particularly galling that off the back of this climate-change charged crisis, mayor Wayne Brown’s proposed budget suggested cutting support to the same services that, on the smell of an oily rag and patched together by volunteers, sprung to action when Council and Emergency Management did not.
One of those community organisations was Sunday Blessings. In the midst of the omicron outbreak in early 2022, I’d canvassed local groups about what services were at risk for our structurally marginalised communities if the pandemic ripped through volunteer teams. Collaborating with Student Volunteer Army, we established the Resilience Team, which we eventually got a small Council grant to formalise. This network underpinned the establishment of the Ellen Melville city centre community hub for the fortnight from the Anniversary weekend floods to recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle. It took several days for AEM to realise it was even happening.
Under Council’s proposed slash-and-burn budget, Sunday Blessings and dozens of others who held proverbial and literal buckets throughout the climate-change-charged crises would lose drop-in-the-bucket funding.
Meanwhile, late on Thursday night last week, frontline firefighters from our country’s busiest station decided something was amiss with the well-overdue works to install air conditioning in the Pitt Street building. Asbestos was then tested for and found.
Earlier in the week I’d heard back from FENZ about how the station was, technically, the number one priority nationally for redevelopment, but because of the cost and the heritage status, resourcing is currently being spent piecemeal or diverted to other projects.
With Parnell firefighters currently co-located in the city as their station is closed for a two-year redevelopment, the minimum weeks-long closure to Pitt Street raises genuine concerns about response times across the city’s isthmus – not to mention the critical, but already run-down, equipment now offline for contamination testing.
A month ago I went out with St John’s Ambulance to see how things played out for them late night Friday. I saw first hand what “ramping” means – holding ambulances in the hospital carpark to care for patients who can’t squeeze into our overcrowded and underfunded emergency rooms.
This is what happens when we run our collective well dry. When we snip away at our social fabric to keep rates and taxes artificially low. When we privatise profit and socialise cost.
Visiting Civil Defence Centres throughout late January and early February, the key takeaway was that those already struggling – those who couldn’t afford insurance – would be struggling far more than usual into the future as they tried to rebuild their lives on the quicksand of debt. Poverty is expensive.
In crisis what we really value is put in the spotlight. Neighbours helped neighbours. There wasn’t means-testing or arbitrary assessment of who was “deserving”. Resilience is proven a community trait, not a commodity one can buy off the shelf.
If we play into the hands of politicians and political parties who pitch fear, disdain and judgement towards fellow Aucklanders and New Zealanders; if we distrust each other and put up barriers to support, it isn’t there when we need it either. The removal of the fence at the top of the cliff manifests in bigger, different issues: in homelessness, poverty, crime.
Different choices can and should be made.
We can have systems of governance that are directly connected and accountable to the front-lines. We can peel back the layers of bureaucratic inertia, where no one is ever responsible for anything going wrong because the watering-down rungs of sign-off means one is stymied from ever really changing anything.
We can fill the desperate infrastructural deficit by paying for it equitably – like we did in the 1930s after the world wars, with higher tax rates for those who managed to make a lot of money while others were struggling. Untaxed capital gains, excess supermarket or bank profits, or the trillion-dollar Covid wealth transfer could pay for it: for our stormwater upgrades, emergency rooms, frontline essential staff and equipment.
All “systems” – crisis or otherwise – are the sum of their parts. As much as we might like to complicate it, those parts are just people. People can change, especially in an election year. So please, don’t leave politics to the politicians.