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A timely wake-up call

The first indication something unprecedented was happening in Auckland on Friday came through for many of us on social media.

This is not unusual, but widespread disasters normally happen somewhere else – not in New Zealand.

And when they do happen here, it’s generally outside Auckland: floods on the West Coast of the South Island, the Coromandel or Northland; the earth regularly shaking in Wellington and other parts of the lower North Island; and, of course, the Christchurch earthquake.

Auckland seldom experiences more than minor flooding, fog at the airport, and intermittent traffic chaos.

Until now. Maybe that’s why the authorities were slow to react – or react publicly, at least. Whatever the reason, limited communication from Auckland’s mayor and other authorities responsible for communicating relevant information will no doubt be the subject of discussion for some time to come.

On Friday evening, at about 5.30 pm, as I drove home from Masterton to Martinborough, Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme was focused on the transport chaos surrounding the Elton John concert. A transport spokesperson was unsuccessfully trying to defend successive glitches that hampered ferrying tens of thousands to and from the event. Although a rain warning was in place, it was not expected to impact the event at that stage. A few hours later, the event was cancelled, and apocalyptic weather videos were appearing on social media.

Within a few hours, it started becoming clear through Twitter and TikTok a disaster was unfolding in our biggest city.

Videos were being posted of buses driving through floods with passengers knee-deep in rainwater, people with water up to their chests carrying children and the elderly out of houses, and streets becoming raging torrents.

The silence from the Auckland mayor’s office was notable.

Meanwhile, the NZ Transport Agency, responsible for traffic updates, issued a ‘final update’ at 7.50pm on Friday – at a time when the situation on the roads was very bad and getting worse – and then remained silent till about 10.30pm. The agency was reportedly told by Transport Minister Michael Wood it had to get back online.

Finally, after videos of the international terminal at the airport being swamped started trickling out, it was announced Mayor Wayne Brown had declared a state of emergency.

Brown said he signed the order at 9.27pm, but it was not publicly broadcast until 10.18pm. Brown later explained the delay in making the decision by saying he was waiting for advice and following process.

It’s hard not to conclude there have been failures.

Early indications are delays will be blamed on this event being ‘unprecedented’. Maybe so in Auckland, but is this really a surprise? Why should it regularly flood in Coromandel and Northland but not Auckland?

We all know the weather is changing, and floods are becoming more frequent.

Some still deny this change is man-made, but whatever the cause, we can’t deny the reality. All of us are vulnerable, including in Wairarapa.

This is a wake-up call for us all. Next time the disastrous flood could be here at home. Are we ready?

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