14 Apr 2023

Documents reveal chaotic scenes at Auckland Council during January flood

8:15 am on 14 April 2023
Mayor Wayne Brown at Auckland Emergency Management today, with councillor Sharon Stewart and deputy mayor Desley Simpson.

File photo. Mayor Wayne Brown at Auckland Emergency Management on 28 January, with councillor Sharon Stewart and deputy mayor Desley Simpson. Photo: Supplied

Nearly 1000 pages of documents show chaotic scenes at Auckland Council when the city was hit with the record-breaking January floods.

Emails and communication from 27 January have been released to RNZ.

They detail conversations involving mayor Wayne Brown and councillors, senior staff within council, and Auckland Emergency Management.

A review of the council's response to the Anniversary Weekend floods found its emergency management response was slow, ill-prepared and unfit to respond to a major storm. A record amount of rainfall on the city left four dead and hundreds of homes and businesses damaged.

The documents show at 5.54pm, Hibiscus and Bays Local Board deputy chair Julia Parfitt had emailed Brown, councillors, and the council's emergency team to alert them to widespread flooding in low-lying areas of the North Shore, raw sewage on Hibiscus Coast and failing wastewater pumping stations.

Half an hour later she appealed for messaging to the public, with high tide due overnight. "People need to shift valuables particularly cars to high ground," she wrote.

In response an Auckland Council official shared screenshots of Auckland Emergency Management's Twitter account and said most people in low-lying areas were facing issues.

"The latest advice from Auckland Emergency Management is to stay in place, if safe. Call 111 if life is endangered. I understand that all emergency services are extremely stretched at present."

Flooding on Candia Road in Henderson Valley, west Auckland on 27 January 2023.

Flooding on Candia Road in Henderson Valley, West Auckland on 27 January. Photo: Supplied

Brown took and made a number of phone calls and forwarded emails to his chief of staff.

The documents show he was having problems with his work iPad and wanted it fixed, but the on-duty IT person was dealing with their own flooded home.

Eventually someone else was called in but it appeared the mayor's iPad was out of action for at least an hour.

State of emergency

At 9.09pm Wayne Brown's chief of staff Max Hardy updated councillors on what the mayor had been doing, saying he had been in his office receiving regular updates from Emergency Management.

"He is awaiting imminent advice on whether a declaration of a state of local emergency is required or useful... The Mayor will also be seeking assurances that evacuation procedures are in place and communicated, if required overnight."

In an email he asked councillors to share only official information with their communities.

In response, councillor Josephine Bartley started a series of emails asking Hardy and the mayor to immediately declare a state of emergency.

Residents were "sitting ducks", she wrote.

"They ring 111 and are told that emergency services are overloaded and can't get to them right now. Then I have people who have self evacuated contacting me where can they go for the night as their homes are under water now. Where are the evacuation sites to let people know where to go?"

A cliff side at Princes Street, Northcote, was seen coming down after the heavy rain in Auckland.

A cliff side at Princes Street, Northcote, was seen coming down on 28 January after the heavy rain in Auckland. Photo: Supplied / Caleb Bird

Councillors Kerrin Leoni, Julie Fairey, Richard Hills and Angela Dalton joined calls for a state of emergency to be declared.

Just over half an hour later, at 9.41pm, Hardy finally advised councillors that a formal state of emergency declaration had been signed.

Deputy mayor Desley Simpson responded "Thank God! Thank you".

After 10pm councillors were asking about evacuation centres and what people needing help should be doing.

In one email Lotu Fuli, a Manukau ward councillor, was desperately asking for an update on an official evacuation site in Mangere.

She told the mayor "our families are literally drowning".

Fuli started ringing around churches seeing if they were taking people in.

Other councillors were asking about whether Auckland Transport was closing roads.

Julie Fairey asked if Eden Park might be used as an evacuation centre, clearly not knowing it too was under water.

The independent view panel found the state of emergency should have been announced earlier, panel head Mike Bush said, as most of the damage was done in the first few hours and that was not known to officials. The mayor on Wednesday, responding to the review, said he accepted its recommendations, was committed to fixing the problems and planned to increase the budget for Auckland Emergency Management.

Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson said communication in events since - including Cyclone Gabrielle - showed the council had already improved its emergency response systems.

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