On that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth.
THE TORRENTIAL DOWNPOURS that dumped a record-breaking amount of rain on Auckland this anniversary weekend will reoccur with ever-increasing frequency. The planet’s atmosphere is warming, and since warm air carries more moisture the likelihood of such extreme weather events is similarly increased. New Zealanders are no longer entitled to write-off the sort of deluge that flooded much of Auckland on 27-28 January 2023 as a one-in-500-year event.
Not that New Zealanders are particularly receptive to the dire warnings of climatologists and meteorologists. With considerable justification, they demand to know what they are supposed to do about it. How, precisely, are the human-beings at the end of “atmospheric rivers” carrying mind-boggling quantities of water supposed to prevent them from dropping it on their heads? The air and ocean currents which determine New Zealand’s climate are not subject to the will of its human population – or their leaders.
Indeed, for those Aucklanders who lived through the events of Friday and Saturday, the power and indifference of the natural world was terrifyingly reiterated. Ours is a proud and headstrong species, but in the face of what one Aucklander described as “apocalyptic” precipitation, our arrogance is swiftly beaten down. The images of men and women wading through floodwaters chest deep, their faces frozen in a rictus of fear and uncertainty were biblical in their eloquence.
On Friday and Saturday the natural world also plunged Auckland into a fast-moving political crisis. In extremis, people turn towards those in authority for guidance and reassurance. Sadly, “Authority’s” response left much to be desired.
Auckland’s Mayor, Wayne Brown, who should have been all over the mainstream and social media, dispensing such information as he possessed, publicly ordering all the relevant Auckland Council bodies into action, and gathering what intelligence he could concerning the intensity and destructiveness of the weather “bomb” that was devastating his city, instead maintained an frustrating radio silence.
Hour after hour of torrential rain went by. Streets became rivers. Homes were flooded. Parks became lakes. Cars were abandoned. People drowned. It was not until 10:17pm, however, that Mayor Brown declared a local state of emergency – thereby allowing the Central Government to swing into action on behalf of Auckland’s citizens.
Those who were following the unfolding tragedy on Twitter were soon made aware of the rising fury of those Auckland City Councillors struggling to assist the flood’s victims. Members of Parliament, too, some of them Ministers of the Crown, were equally aghast. The equivalent of cheers went up on Twitter when the Minister of Transport and MP for Mt Roskill, Michael Wood, peremptorily ordered Waka Kotahi to get its shut-down website up-and-running and to post transport-related up-dates every half-hour.
The Minister’s rage was entirely justified as first the state highways in and out of Auckland, and then the domestic and international terminals of Auckland Airport, succumbed to the floodwaters. The city’s bus fleet struggled to carry its passengers out of the rising waters. In some of them the murky-brown flood-water sloshed back and forth along the access-aisle as alarmed passengers willed the vehicle forward. Private motor cars were quickly overwhelmed and abandoned. Citizen journalists captured eerie images of cars floating: their lights still glowing in the failing light; their windscreen wipers still thrashing ineffectually against the unceasing rain.
Mayor Brown insists that he was guided by the advice of his “professionals”, and that the moment they asked him to declare a state of emergency, a state of emergency was declared. He has further avowed that, as the person responsible for organising the city-wide response to what was fast-becoming a full-scale disaster, he did not have the luxury of delivering hands-on assistance at the ward and community-board level. Someone had to remain at the calm centre of the crisis.
All true, but a leader must also be seen to lead. He must be there – or, at least, his voice and image must be there – consoling, inspiring, thanking and guiding his city’s people. But, on that frightening Friday night, Brown wasn’t there. Very few Aucklanders will be prepared to swear – hand-on-heart – that, in the Great Auckland Flood of 2023, their Mayor did all that was expected of him. The response of Christchurch’s Mayor, Bob Parker, when Mother Nature shook his city to ruins in 2011, offers the people of New Zealand a particularly telling contrast.
Certainly, the country’s new Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, did not need to be told that his place was in front of the electorally crucial voters of the nation’s largest city. Hitching a ride on an RNZAF Hercules transport, and then on an air-force helicopter, Hipkins was given a birds-eye view of the damage. But, even as he said all the right things and made all the right promises, the Labour Leader must have been asking himself whether the New Zealand state was up to a challenge of this magnitude.
New Zealand’s cities were founded and grew to their present size in the bounteous years before global warming was recognised as a problem. Their waste and stormwater infrastructure simply wasn’t built to cope with the sort of deluge that descended on Auckland.
“Flooding happens when stormwater can’t drain away fast enough”, writes James Fenwick in an opinion piece posted on the Newsroom website. “So what we need are bigger drains, larger stormwater pipes and stormwater systems that can deal with such extremes.” Except, as Fenwick notes: “The country’s stormwater drain system was designed for the climate we used to have – 50 or more years ago. What we need is a stormwater system designed for the climate we have now, and the one we’ll have in 50 years from now.”
Hipkins despair at being forced to confront even bigger challenges in managing New Zealand’s three waters (drinking, waste and storm) than the ones already on his plate is readily imagined. Also gnawing away at his confidence – as well, no doubt, as Christopher Luxon’s – will be the frightening conclusion that the highly-urbanised nation that is New Zealand is going to have to be rebuilt from top to bottom. Or, failing that, left to simply decline and decay for want of the billions-upon-billions of dollars needed to re-fit it.
After the deluge, the questions around climate change become even starker. This country’s contribution to global warming is infinitesimal – barely two-tenths of one percent. We could revert to the Stone Age tomorrow and not only would the rest of the world fail to notice or appreciate New Zealand’s sacrifice, but also – and much more ominously – those devastating atmospheric rivers would not stop turning warm air into disasters.
It would appear that the choice between rolling-back global warming, and seeking to mitigate its worst effects, is being made for us.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 30 January 2023.