Severe flooding has ravaged Auckland but the mayor of the city is barely visible.
As I write, the airport has flooded, check-in areas looking like a public pool. Motorways are overflowing and cars have been seen floating down streets like a river. A person has died in floodwaters in Wairau Valley. Fire services are dealing with hundreds of callouts. With the dark set in and a brief, yet hopeful, break in the rain, thousands across the city are dealing with property damage, injury and uncertainty.
Local MPs have been communicating with their constituents via social media. Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick advised Aucklanders earlier this evening to stay home if possible and said she was in contact with emergency services and would update new information as it came to hand.
Mt Roskill MP and transport minister Michael Wood said shortly after 9pm that “ministers and MPs are co-ordinating” in regards to a state of emergency, but added, “a formal declaration sits with the mayor.”
So where is the mayor? Wayne Brown, aka The Fixer, was silent and out of sight until 7.17pm, after a major concert (Elton John) had already been cancelled due to the weather. He urged residents to take advice from emergency responders. “We want to make sure that all residents are kept informed, and emergency services are able to reach those who are most vulnerable and at risk as quickly as possible. Do not put yourself at risk,” he said.
Brown appeared on RNZ to reiterate the message, noting, “we need the rain to stop, that’s the main issue”.
Meanwhile, many questioned the delay in declaring a state of emergency, including his own councillors. At 9.30pm, councillor Josephine Bartley tweeted: “You just have to look online to see the chaos out there. No need to wait. Declare state of emergency.” Attached were screenshots of an internal memo from the mayor’s office asking councillors to only share “official” information with their communities. Bartley’s response, also attached, read:
“Declare a state of emergency now. I’m getting families from Mangere area asking me what to do because their homes are flooded so they are in their neighbours home with many other people, they can’t get out of the street as its flooded and family cant get in to get them out either. So they are sitting ducks. They ring 111 and are told that emergency services are overloaded and can’t get to them right now.
“Where are the evacuation sites to let people know where to go? Has Red Cross got involved as they can set up emergency welfare centres. This is terrible organisation for an emergency management, so many families, especially in Māngere scared and vulnerable wanting to know what to do and their families are scared trying to get to them themselves. Not telling me to tell families who are stuck in flooded streets to post videos on the emergency management facebook page.”
Moments later, National leader Christopher Luxon urged the mayor to declare a state of emergency. “High tide hits after midnight and we need a list of evacuation centres for folk to head to.”
It’s understood the government can technically declare a state of emergency itself if necessary. This government has certainly dealt with its fair share of emergencies, and MPs from all parties have demonstrated a willingness to communicate directly with those impacted by traumatic events. It would be expected that any other major city mayors (particularly those who have tragically seen emergencies with regularity) would be out on the ground, coordinating, helping, and making decisions with speed. Perhaps we have come to take that for granted in our leaders.
As minutes ticked by and residents of New Zealand’s largest city waited for any sign of help, the mayor’s office remained silent, and his luddite insistence on staying off social media suddenly started to look like wilful ignorance. Deputy mayor Desley Simpson told Today FM moments ago that an emergency situation had been declared, though it is yet to be confirmed or communicated widely by Brown. Swarbrick, who at time of writing had recently spoken with Brown on the phone, said “There will be a time to thoroughly assess the lack of preparedness, systems and communications here.”
After a successful campaign centred on pragmatism and “fixing” Auckland, the mayor’s first test under pressure has shown a lack of decisiveness and an unwillingness to fix anything.