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Auckland’s emergency response reaction

In brief: 

  • State of emergency was declared in Auckland. 4 people died due to flooding and slips. 
  • Many think an emergency should have been declared earlier, but Wayne Brown says he followed procedure. 
  • Media was almost unanimously critical of Brown, yet mostly silent on the central government’s botching of the school closures. 
  • Much of the journalism was about partisan support, second guessing from their spectator chairs and trying to create drama.

Could anything have been done to actually avoid the floods?

Weather predictions are seldom 100% correct, and the recent heavy rain experienced by Auckland and much of the upper north island on 27th January 2023 was not a certainty until it happened. In the early evening Sir Elton John was still trying to hold his Auckland outdoor concert, only to cancel as the 8 o’clock start time approached.

A state of emergency was announced at about 9.30pm by Mayor Wayne Brown. The deluge resulted in flood waters, which took the lives of 3 people, and landslides, which took one life. Hundreds of homes were declared uninhabitable with access officially restricted. Supermarkets flooded and road closures around Auckland  have caused issues with transport. The  Auckland airport was also flooded, cancelling flights.

High pressure media to go along with the high pressure weather system

A state of emergency is usually called when local emergency services are overwhelmed. This declaration allows for additional assistance from outside the region, and gives more power to emergency workers to evacuate or limit people’s movement in risky areas. 

Throughout the Friday evening, pressure had been mounting for the mayor to declare an emergency. A number of MPs and media commentators posted online about the situation, including suggestions and criticism directed at the mayor for not declaring an emergency earlier.

Brown apologised for the lack of communication from his team.

While uncommon, it is not unprecedented for a mayor to announce a state of emergency. The Civil Defense Emergency Management (CDEM) team is also involved in declaring a state of local emergency. An emergency can also be called by the central government. 

Brown says he was waiting for CDEM to communicate. He and his team had not been added to the relevant emergency communications lists, causing delays. He pushed back on the criticism that he was too slow in calling the emergency, saying he signed the order as soon as officials recommended. There is no suggestion the declaration had any meaningful effect on outcomes.

A partisan attack?

Overall the media was critical of the mayor’s response. Tova O’Brien went so far as to assert the Mayor and officials had no right to remain silent awaiting an inquiry into what happened. This is just her opinion and Brown didn’t run on a platform of keeping the media, and those seeking drama from the Government, entertained.

When the media’s efforts might be better spent being a positive influence, journalists instead chose to spread outrage by focusing on a leaked message from Brown that described journalists as “drongos”. As well, emails from Auckland councillors claimed that Brown was trying to “gag” team members in an attempt to ensure clear communication. But is that an unreasonable request to minimise confusion during a chaotic time?

In contrast, after having a few days to think about it, the central government decided to close Auckland schools for the week, even though only a small number of schools were actually damaged. The message was badly communicated, due to apparent email problems, but no alternative communication was effected in a timely manner. Then the order, which many thought was overkill, was reversed quickly. For whatever reason, the media thought Brown’s alleged inaction much more worthy of criticism.

The Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance is calling for accountability for “failures” of unelected “faceless” officials.  An official inquiry into the response is underway, being led by the former police commissioner Mike Bush, and commissioned by Brown. $100,000 will be spent, with results expected in a month.

The Auckland state of emergency has since been extended by Brown due to cyclone Gabrielle.

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