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Wayne Brown surveys January's flood damage in Auckland
Wayne Brown surveys January’s flood damage in Auckland (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

The BulletinApril 13, 2023

A supercity woefully unprepared for a superstorm

Wayne Brown surveys January's flood damage in Auckland
Wayne Brown surveys January’s flood damage in Auckland (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

Described as a system failure, the immediate response to the Auckland floods raises big questions about disaster preparedness in the country’s biggest city, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark”

That’s the quote that opens Mike Bush’s review into the immediate response to the floods in Auckland in late January. It’s usually attributed to idiosyncratic, conservative economist Howard Ruff, who used it to recommend readiness in the event of economic collapse. After being delayed four times, the 106-page report was released yesterday. Stewart Sowman-Lund breaks down the key findings. This morning, noting the review’s criticism of a lack of visible leadership at a time of crisis, Toby Manhire is once again asking where Wayne Brown is. Auckland’s mayor did not front the press conference yesterday for the release of the review he commissioned. He was also unavailable for interviews.

Visible leadership and communications can’t be opted out of

As Manhire writes, it is wrong and unfair to say that the system failure described by Bush was all about Brown’s response. He is “the bit of the iceberg above the water line.” He is the one that commissioned the report and has reiterated his apology. Nonetheless, Bush’s review debunks any suggestion that visible leadership and frequent public communications during a time of crisis are somehow optional. It also notes that there was “little utilisation of mainstream media, as lifeline utilities, to amplify critical safety messages.” For anyone who wondered if they were going a bit soft (me) in pointing out that empathetic, timely communications from leaders during times of crisis are not a nice-to-have but a necessity, the review had this to say: “Early messaging lacked empathy to assuage people’s fears and show sympathy and support for those who had been impacted by loss of life and property.”

“All in charge on notice”

I can’t help but hear this as if it comes from Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet (all are punished), but in a written statement, Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick said the report puts “all in charge on notice”. “Aucklanders must never be let down by their systems and leadership like this ever again” she wrote. There are no two ways about it the report, described as excoriating by Manhire, clearly says Auckland was not prepared and concerningly, that recommendations and issues raised as early as 2016 were not implemented. “From 2016, the council’s Auckland civil defence emergency management plan recognised the issues that Auckland faced as a result of infrequent testing and lack of understanding of its emergency response frameworks,” it reads. “The plan raised the concern that Auckland’s capability to respond to large-scale or widespread events – such as occurred on 27-29 January 2023 – had not been tested, and that operational emergency management plans were not sufficient.”

So what now?

The Herald’s Simon Wilson summarises (paywalled) one of the key questions at the heart of Bush’s report. Should Auckland have its own experienced on-call disaster managers? Or should such people be employed by the government and quickly deployed wherever they’re needed? Yet to be answered. As Stuff’s Todd Niall notes, the state of Auckland’s Emergency Management has been under review for a while by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG). A draft OAG report was not able to be provided to the review team, and the mayor’s office did not respond to a question from Stuff as to whether Brown had seen it, as it circulated late in 2022. Bush’s report makes 17 recommendations and Brown has accepted all of them. The report also suggests there could be more to delve into. Given the short time frame, the report notes that those involved are “not convinced we have seen all relevant materials.” The government will do its own reviews of the fatal floods and Cyclone Gabrielle. No one from the office of minister for emergency response was interviewed as part of Bush’s review.

Keep going!