Thursday, April 18, 2024

Stewart accepts critical findings into Auckland’s flood response

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Howick ward councillor Sharon Stewart. File photo supplied

Howick ward councillor Sharon Stewart says she accepts the findings of a report into the official response to the devastating flooding in Auckland in January which led to the deaths of four people.

An independent review into the response was carried out by former Police Commissioner Mike Bush and a review panel.

It found Auckland Council’s emergency management system was unprepared for such an event and the speed with which it happened and a “series of problems aligned to create a system failure, particularly in the initial 12 hours”.

Stewart chairs the council’s Civil Defence and Emergency Management Committee (ACDEM).

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown was heavily criticised by councillors and the public for his initial response to the weather emergency and a lack of communication with residents.

Numerous homes were damaged by floodwaters and landslips across the city due to the torrential downpour that struck on January 27.

Bush’s report says Stewart has served as chair of ACDEM for several terms previously.

It states: “We consider that communications between the office of the mayor, elected members, the chair of the ACDEM committee, the executive team and the AEM [Auckland Emergency Management] on the night were disjointed and suboptimal.

“They relied too heavily on individual initiative, such as that shown by the Director Governance, rather than on predesigned and pretested protocols.”

Stewart told the Times elected members have to take responsibility, but it’s the duty of the council’s chief executive to “carry out our expectations”.

“Elected members are not operational,” she says.

“Our committee provides support to the AEM. Two distinct areas [of] setting policy and operational guidelines.

“AEM responsibility is response [which is] what they send out.

“Not our small committee. We only meet every quarter and during Covid it wasn’t even as often as that.

“I am not part of the day-to-day running of Civil Defence operations.”

Stewart says she’s “extremely disappointed” at the lack of communication to herself and the mayor on the night of the flooding.

“They didn’t even ring me. Really at 5.48pm I should have been phoned.

“That was when AEM and many of the senior responders meet.

“Another failure that needs to be addressed into the future is the alert.

“I only found about it by messenger. My daughter lives [in] west [Auckland] and she sent me a photo of a street I know.

“It flooded when we had the New Lynn floods. When I saw that I understood we had a problem.

“I then rang [council governance manager] Phil Wilson at 7.09pm.

“The Mike Bush report said poor communication at the critical early stages [was a problem].

“In fact I had none at all. No phone call, not until I called the chief of staff and the general manager.”

Stewart says her first call to the mayor about the storm was at 7.12pm and she told him the Sir Elton John concert scheduled to take place that night should be cancelled.

“It was obvious that Waka Kotahi [NZTA] and AT [Auckland Transport] must have known we had an extreme weather event.”

She says she’d never seen such flash flooding in Auckland before.

“The Howick ward was extremely lucky we missed the heavy downfall. The organisation needs to lift its game.

“This is a big wake up call, unfortunately a tragic one.”

Brown says he accepts the review’s recommendations and will work to ensure the panel’s recommendations are implemented.

“The tragic events of January 27 have affected us all deeply.

“Four people lost their lives, and hundreds have lost their homes.

“I have acknowledged I dropped the ball that night. The communications weren’t fast enough, and I was too slow to be seen. I stand by my previous apology to Aucklanders.”

Council chief executive Jim Stabback says he, the council’s executive leadership, and emergency management staff will consider the report’s findings and recommendations and report back on an implementation plan.

“As with any emergency response, we welcome the opportunity to review how our systems performed, what worked and what didn’t, what we can learn, and how we will immediately make improvements.

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

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