NZ Herald: Auckland floods a ‘wake-up call’ for under prepared city

Article originally published on NZ Herald 31/1/2023 

The disorganisation of Friday night in Tāmaki Makaurau clearly shows the emergency plans we have in place aren’t remotely up to scratch.

Let’s not beat around the bush here. We need a 10-fold improvement in the systems we have in place to keep people safe – from communications processes and traffic management through to stormwater infrastructure and evacuation centres.

We need appropriate plans and transparent communication back to our citizens about what we do in the case of emergencies.

Our climate has changed and along with this comes more extreme weather events, more frequently.

Whilst we need to do everything in our power to keep the dream of curbing global warming to 1.5 degrees alive, almost every system in New Zealand needs to adapt to
our new reality.

Pre-Covid, London-based reinsurer Lloyd’s was warning that Aotearoa has the second highest annual expected cost from natural disasters, behind only Bangladesh.

Last year, two-thirds of Bangladesh’s land was impacted by floods and 25 million people were left homeless due to the flooding.

If we’re the second-most-at-risk, that means the “unprecedented” storm on Friday could just be the tip of the iceberg going forward.

Last Friday should be a wake-up call for every mayor, everyone working in infrastructure, every employer and every event organiser in this country. Knowing how
you’ll handle extreme weather events should now be a core part of your job.

We just need to look at the Elton John concert to understand that isn’t the case now.

With 46,000 people descending on Mt Smart Stadium, trains cancelled and most people on buses, in cars or on foot, it was the perfect storm for a disastrous evening.

I’m surprised not more has been written about what concert-goers experienced.

As the rain set in, I awaited a decision about whether the concert would go ahead. We waited until the last minute we could to leave, but with no communication, we joined
the masses to descend on Mt Smart, assuming they had a plan in place.

On the way to the concert, we saw parents carrying young children towards Mt Smart, we saw people slipping over and we saw others shivering in wet clothes. It was a mess.

Then, just as we were getting out of the car, a friend called to say the stadium was being evacuated and the concert was cancelled.

We were the lucky ones, it turns out.

As a concert-goer, unless you were watching the Twitter feed, you had no idea of knowing it had just been cancelled. We received no notification and no information
about what had happened.

In fact, Aucklanders received no civil defence emergency text alerts on Friday night. If our wettest day on record, with people travelling across the city before a long weekend,
isn’t enough to trigger that system at pace, I don’t know what is.

Our drive home was dangerous. We’ve all seen the photos and heard the stories by now.

It was a horrible situation to be in, and it’s only good fortune for the organisers that no concert-goers were killed travelling to or from the stadium.

How was a decision to cancel not made sooner? Who is responsible for the safe running of a major public event in our largest city? The promoters and organisers? The venue?
The CEO of Auckland Council? Civil Defence? When does the mayor step in to say enough is enough and pull the plug?

No one took any action until far too late, but all of the above should have had the ability to pull the plug on a major event such as this. Ultimately, they all share responsibility for
what was one of the most reckless decisions on the day.

While this storm has been deemed “unprecedented” again and again by our mayor, it is hard to understand how we weren’t better prepared for this. The “unprecedented”
needs to become the baseline of what we prepare for moving forward.

We live in Tāmaki Makaurau, surrounded by volcanoes and water, and filled with waterways. Our risk management systems should be world class because we are at
significant risk of major climate-related events.

To do this, we require strong leadership and vision from the top. We look to our city’s leaders to take initiative and drive this as a key priority.

When things go wrong, people out of their depth open feel it is about blame, but it’s actually about accountability. We need to understand exactly what went wrong on
Friday night.