Over the last few years, it’s seemed like city after city around the world has become subject to extreme weather events that have been made worse by impacts from climate change. We’ve highlighted many of them in our Weekly Roundup series.
Sadly, over the last few days it’s been Auckland’s turn to experience this on a widespread scale.
An immense deluge hit on Friday, rapidly inundating areas across the whole city, with an official State of Emergency declared late on Friday night. More rain is forecast for today, currently bearing down on Northland and heading back towards Auckland and the Coromandel, with warnings that the new storm could be worse than Friday’s.
Our thoughts go out to the families of those who have lost loved ones in the flood, to everyone whose homes and possessions have been lost or damaged by polluted waters and landslips, and also to all the emergency responders and community groups out there helping people during this time.
Here’s the Auckland Emergency Management page about the current floods, for bookmarking. Please stay safe out there. Official advice is generally to stay at home as long as it’s safe to do so.
Also, the Spinoff has a useful list of where to get help if you need, and how to help if you’re able.(It’s compiled by volunteers, so is not exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start).
One thing that’s clear from this event is that while floods arrive quickly, reviewing the response takes time. There will be many aspects to discuss in coming weeks. It’s impossible to cover every angle in one post, let alone while the worst of the disaster and emergency clean-up is still very much upon us.
However, I’ve jotted down a few quick thoughts below to start with, and I welcome yours too.
As has been widely covered, public agencies were surprisingly poor at communicating on Friday – although as an experienced PT user, it certainly felt familiar. It was already clear by around 6pm that things were getting bad, with multiple areas of flooding being recorded, including on the Northern Motorway.
And yet agencies like Waka Kotahi seemed to think it would be fine to pack up and go home, at the very time they were needed the most.
Please can the social media team stay on. This is crucial information and people are scared. https://t.co/P9sHrFEYde
— Richard Hills (@RichardHills_) January 27, 2023
This lack of communication via official channels was combined with a complete absence of leadership by the Mayor. His subsequent efforts which seemed to deflect blame towards everyone else has just highlighted that initial absence even more. Every day delivers another concerning lack of understanding about the importance of communicating well, widely and promptly.
It seems Wayne Brown has clearly lost confidence both with central government and a large cross-section of the city. That will be hard to fix.
Leadership is about much more than sternly worded letters. As of this morning, a petition for the mayor to resign has over 15,500 signatures.
Advice to Wayne Brown. Stand down. You don’t have what it takes to lead our city. We know it, your staff know it and you know it as well. Stand down and hand over the reins to your deputy and you may be able to salvage a little of what’s left of your tattered reputation.
— Deborah Pead (@DeborahPead) January 28, 2023
At least over the last few days, communication from our public agencies has improved. AT has a page here with all the disruptions to roads and PT networks.
Wairau valley is totally under water pic.twitter.com/rUhkqnXTc6
— Christo Montes (@MonteChristoNZ) January 27, 2023
I hope this event can be a catalyst for improving how the council and our public agencies communicate with the public. A programme of work is needed to work out what went wrong, and how it can be improved for next time. We should also be looking overseas (and locally, beyond Auckland) to learn what best practice is, and incorporate that into our plans.
One common theme of the voices from Friday was how incredibly fast the floodwaters rose, and how many near tragedies were closely averted by neighbours working together at speed. Read just one story and extrapolate by several thousand to get a sense of how life-threatening this event was.
Overall it was a very sobering live demonstration that if you don’t already have a plan, you don’t have time to make one. That should be top of mind in all the reviews of the official response. It’s also something we probably all need to think about at the household level.
A number of roads and thus parts of our PT network are still disrupted as a result of the floods. This includes the rail network, with services reduced due to a number of slips along the lines.
And we’ve all seen the images of broken roads, and stranded and ruined cars. Getting our PT network ‘back to normal’ as fast as possible is likely to be doubly important for those who have lost cars in the floods.
Auckland Transport has a dedicated “weather watch” page listing road closures and giving travel advice. The key advice is to stay at home if it’s safe to do so; schools are closed until 7 February to assist in minimising traffic to reduce the burden on the roads and allow repairs to happen.
(Regular readers might add that minimising traffic could well be a multi-purpose tool to ensure a thriving present and survivable future, as well as reducing the burden on public investment and infrastructure of all kinds).
At the height of the flooding, pictures and videos surfaced of buses driving through floodwaters. Note: driving through floodwater is officially discouraged.
No doubt some heroic choices were being made in the moment, which may well have helped many people get home (including from the cancelled Elton John concert, another topic to discuss), but hindsight raises a lot of questions.
Auckland bus way swamped pic.twitter.com/9XIcsm2Lrz
— Adam (@CrazyIdeasNZ) January 27, 2023
As Stu points out in this tweet, this is definitely an area where driver training will be needed.
Fwiw someone who drives a public bus in a New Zealand city has confirmed that bus drivers aren't formally trained on how to drive in floods.
With climate change, this probably needs to change*.
* I'm now making some inquiries about how bus driver training works in Queensland. https://t.co/LLxObdSvqy
— Stu Donovan (@StuartBDonovan) January 28, 2023
The floods highlight that we really need to think about our land use patterns and how that can help with our climate mitigation. Or, as the mayor quite insensitively said on Saturday “some of those houses, when you think about it, actually shouldn’t have been where they are“.
The mayor isn’t entirely wrong on this, as some of the houses worst affected also flooded only a few years ago, and will likely do so again in the future. As of this morning, over 200 houses have been red-stickered, while at least 5000 more await inspection for damage from floods and landslides.
Clearly we do need to be doing more to encourage housing in areas that won’t flood, or are less likely to flood. We probably also need to find ways to wind back some existing housing in flood plains, although this wouldn’t be cheap, and it will have significant impacts on the residents of those homes.
As Auckland starts taking climate mitigation seriously, a land use pattern that would serve us well would be mid-rise apartments along ridgelines with rainwater parks in the gullies — in contrast to our existing strategy of building homogenous suburbia everywhere. pic.twitter.com/VZn60XLfv4
— scoot! (@ScootFoundation) January 29, 2023
One thing I hope happens is a review and recalibration of the council’s flood plain mapping, to see how it compares to what happened. There are certainly some areas on the map where council has prevented housing changes that weren’t, as it happens, impacted by this flooding event. Meanwhile, some of the areas that were badly flooded don’t appear to be on this map.
As supermarkets ask customers to only buy what they need, and images appear of onions washed off the fields of Pukekohe and parts south, it’s also time to clarify where else we shouldn’t be building housing. We’re going to need those good growing soils to ensure future food supplies.
South of Waiuku pic.twitter.com/7hNrzqZ3rk
— Brian Hamilton (@mewindy) January 29, 2023
Mega-projects vs local programmes
In recent years, especially in transport, there has been a strong push towards bigger and bigger mega-projects. For example, even the huge City Rail Link now looks tiny compared to the proposed tunnel for light rail across the central isthmus, or an additional Waitemata Harbour crossing.
Perhaps instead of huge projects like these, the immediate focus should be on greater investment in smaller community-focused projects that make our streets fit for purpose. This is resilience-planning 101, and will reinforce a positive feedback loop.
Agencies should be prioritising projects that help people easily get around without a car, to help reduce emissions. And they should be fast-tracking those that include improvements to how we manage storm water, through both hard and soft infrastructure, to help reduce ongoing impacts from events like we’re experiencing.
Of course there will be a huge slate of urgent road repairs to address – but here too, we should expect a “build back better” approach. We’re already decades behind on climate-adapted streetscapes, and just repairing what’s there by putting it back the way it was will set us back further. We have all the tools and information we need to proceed with quick, simple upgrades.
Moreover, Council should start the year with fresh eyes on the proposed budget cuts. For starters, the TERP (Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway) must be lifted back to the top of the agenda. We should also be asking for much more scrutiny of the impact of proposals to trim spending, by e.g. reducing health waters budgets. That starts to look penny-wise and pound foolish, barely months after it was proposed.
— Jon Turner (@JonTurnerNZ) January 27, 2023
Finally, while this may well be the worst flooding event we’ve seen in living memory, we’ve had other bad ones in recent years. Here’s the previous Mayor, six years ago, describing a “one in a hundred year flood”. And climate change means we will almost certainly see more events like this in the future.
Top of the agenda for Tāmaki Makaurau as a city must be the question: how can we be better prepared for the next one?