13 Apr 2023

Auckland Council emergency management chair found out about flooding from her daughter

9:57 am on 13 April 2023
Auckland Councillor Sharon Stewart at a Council meeting about the Unitary Plan. 10 August 2016.

Councillor Sharon Stewart says communication was non-existent on the night of Auckland's flood crisis. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The chair of Auckland Council's emergency management response has revealed she only found out parts of the city were underwater on 27 January after her daughter sent her a photo of flooding in New Lynn.

Until then, Sharon Stewart - councillor for Howick - was in the dark.

"So when I saw that, I realised there was a problem," she told RNZ's Morning Report on Thursday, a day after an independent review of the council's handling of the record-breaking weather event uncovered widespread failures.

A massive number of homes and businesses were damaged and four people died in the Anniversary Weekend floods.

The review, headed by former police commissioner Mike Bush, found the council's emergency management response was slow, ill-prepared and unfit to respond to a major storm.

It said the council had known about many of the potential problems since 2016, existing response plans were insufficient and the plan for large-scale or widespread emergencies hadn't been tested.

Stewart singled out Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback over the council's poor response, saying it was his "duty… to carry out these expectations", not elected representatives like her, because they were "not operational".

"But what was really lacking on the night was really communication," said Stewart who is chair of the council's Emergency Management and Civil Defence Committee.

"Now, I didn't even know anything had happened until my daughter, who lives out west, sent me a photo of a street that she lives near, and I know that street really well and it was flooded. And I know when we had the New Lynn floods, it flooded there. So when I saw that, I realised there was a problem.

"I was really upset that it appears that about 5.48pm Auckland Emergency Management had actually organised a meeting with all the key players and nobody had actually phoned me."

She said she did not hear from the mayor until 7.12pm, and in the meantime she was using social media instead to find out what was happening.

"You know, there's a lot of things that we're going to have to learn from this."

Morgan Allen, spokesperson for a group of West Auckland residents affected by the flooding, told RNZ the criticism did not come as a surprise.

"The bigger issue is not so much how did council respond on the day, but it's more why did council not respond in the years leading up to this event? … For people who have been experiencing repeated flooding for five to 10 years now, it's hard to accept that this is a one-off, unprecedented event - because for West Auckland, it's not."

Tony Stent, whose business in Brown's Bay was completely flooded, agreed communication was bad during the floods, and he did not have any support from the council. He was not confident the council would get it right if Auckland was to be flooded again.

Former police commissioner Mike Bush is addressing media on his findings and recommendations after leading an inquiry into Auckland Council's handling of the Auckland Anniversary weekend flooding on 12 April 2023.

Mike Bush Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

"Who knows if they're going to do anything in a hurry? It's like I say, once in 100 years - but a few years later there's another, and a few weeks later another one, so yeah. A hundred years has got quite short now, hasn't it?"

Morning Report asked the key players onto the programme, but Mayor Wayne Brown, Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson, Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback, Minister for Auckland Michael Wood, Minister for Emergency Management Kieran McAnulty and Auckland Emergency Management all declined to front.

Bush said on Wednesday he was not "here to shed blame in any direction", and the report was not going "to hold people to account for their performance".

'Obviously chaotic'

North Shore Councillor Richard Hills was also on social media from that afternoon, trying to get the word out that worse was yet to come.

"I saw pretty soon early, maybe three or four, and a number of us saw how bad it was. So we were getting out, getting communications to our communities," he told Morning Report.

"I mean, I was just sort of going 'get away from the water, get to higher ground' through my social media channels. And I kind of assumed we'd be backed up with - and I shouldn't have assumed - but there was sort of, not a lot of communication. What to do, where to go?

"And a lot was happening behind the scenes. I think it was obviously chaotic and you know, I do put my heart out to all the council staff who were working there, but from the moment it just wasn't communicated that we were there for the city, and that it was clear what was going to happen when it got dark."

The chair of Auckland Council's environment committee Richard Hills at Beach Haven beach.

Richard Hills Photo: Alexia Russell

Hills said around 4pm or 5pm he was getting pictures "of rivers in the busway and flooding" in residents' houses, but "unless people were following a number of us councillors or local board members who were trying to get that information out, they wouldn't have known what was going on".

Asked who was at fault, he said "everyone", but noted he was not on the Civil Defence and Emergency Management committee - suggesting perhaps in future it becomes a 'committee of the whole' involving all councillors.

"This report is damning of the political side, staff management, so it takes all of us to make sure that this is in place for an impending disaster, which unfortunately as we've seen across the country, can happen any week…

"With climate change and everything else there are going to be more instances like this, so all of us should have eyes on this."

He said in an emergency, council staff are pulled off their day jobs to deal with it - but as the report noted, a "joined-up approach needs to happen, that we need more people actually trained in these roles".

Stewart said she raised concerns last year several vacant roles in the Auckland Emergency Management team were not being filled, and was told Covid-19 was to blame.

"I think it's been a wake-up call, and I think something will definitely happen after this… We do need to have people better trained with these, you know, emergency management. And so, there's a lot of learning that's going to come from this."

Three Waters a fix?

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni, also MP for flood-hit Kelston, was reluctant to comment too much on the report, saying the government was yet to do its own review.

"The report though, it said that central government, well, it showed that central government's almost powerless to act during such emergencies if local councils don't take the lead," she told First Up today.

The government later today is due to reveal its "reset" of the controversial Three Waters reforms. Sepuloni said the Auckland floods and the havoc wrought by Cyclone Gabrielle, which arrived just a couple of weeks later, would make voters "much more open to change and reform in this space".

"The current system does not work well for New Zealanders, and you know - as we've been saying for quite some time - failure to do something will cost councils and ratepayers around $180 billion."

Auckland Councillor Alf Filipaina said it would have been hard for emergency management to be fully prepared with the record-breaking amount of rain that weekend.

"I just hope that we do learn from this report, and I look forward to being part of putting in place what needs to be done based on those recommendations."

The mayor on Wednesday said he accepted the recommendations of the review, was committed to fixing the problems and planned to increase the budget for Auckland Emergency Management.

Stabback, Auckland Council chief executive, said in a statement the council would "immediately make improvements".

"Recommendations that can and should be easily or immediately implemented, will be. In some cases actions are already underway.

"We cannot ignore the fact that this event was unprecedented. The size and scale of the event, its unexpected intensity, and the complexity of gathering a clear picture of what was unfolding, especially in the first 12 hours, made this event unlike anything we have experienced before. We were not as well prepared for it as we could have been.

"We remain committed to ensuring Aucklanders are prepared for an emergency and being ready to respond when the worst happens."

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