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Damning review of Auckland Council's flood response delivered

Apr 12, 2023

An independent review led by former police commissioner Mike Bush has found Auckland Council's emergency management system was not prepared for an event like the 27 January floods.

The highly-critical review of Auckland Council's flood response was delayed for over a month due to Cyclone Gabrielle and what Bush described as inaccuracies.

Bush addressed media this afternoon after the report's findings were released.

The cost of the review also went beyond its initial dedicated $100,000, Bush said.

"We've had a draft report for some time, which we've been consulting with all parties. Even though I said this wasn't a forensic report, it's really important that we were accurate, so we wanted to consult with all parties and that took some time."

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown announced the review after receiving widespread criticism for the time it took his office to declare a state of emergency.

Asked if there could have been a difference to the people who died in the floods if the council acted earlier, Bush said he would not speak on that matter because it was for the coroner.

On the matter of how much sooner the panel thought the state of emergency should have been announced, Bush said he was not prepared to put an exact time on it, but most of the damage was done in the first few hours and that was not known to officials.

"That's why you have to have open communications with everyone who can provide you with information, so that you do have excellent situational awareness on which to base your decisions," he said.

One of the reasons behind why the panel suggested the declaration could have been made earlier, during daylight, was because people were still driving into flood waters hours later, he said.

"So that it really underscores the significance of the event to the public that receive that message and subsequent alerts, so it's to keep people safe."

Some of his fellow councillors, including Manukau's Alf Filipaina, echoed concerns over the slow response which had many Auckland residents distressed and confused in the flood's early hours.

Mayor Brown was not at the conference and Bush he was not expected to be, as it was for the panel to represent its findings.

"We weren't here to hold people to account for their performance," he added.

"We're not here to shed blame in any direction, we're here to ensure that improvements are made but we have spent some time talking about preparedness and planning, even though we were tasked with addressing the response, but in my professional view you cannot take those two apart.

"So we did have to take a backward look to understand the journey they've been on, to understand their planning, preparation and preparedness for an event such as this.

"We're not here to talk about personalities, we're here to talk about a system and what we believe are the improvements, learnings and recommendations to be better so Auckland is fully equipped to respond to a similar situation in the future."

He also said he appreciated the challenges in such a fast-moving event, but fundamental problems dating back to years ago should have been acted on earlier.

Report highlights key issues

The report said many of the problems were known in advance but nothing was done.

"From 2016 onwards, the council's Auckland CDEM Group Plan recognised the issues that Auckland faced as a result of infrequent testing and lack of understanding of its emergency response frameworks," it read.

"The plan raised the concern that Auckland's capability to respond to a large-scale or widespread events - such as occurred on 27-29 January 2023 - had not been tested, and that operational emergency management plans were not sufficient."

It said key leaders, including Mayor Wayne Brown and the chair of the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Committee, did not understand the importance of leadership and public communication, leaving people confused and distressed.

Bush's report found senior leaders underestimated the importance of their roles, impacting communication with Aucklanders and losing public confidence.

"The council's emergency management team appeared to lack the command, crisis leadership skills and operational experience to deal with an event of this complexity, particularly in driving mission clarity and taskings during the initial response," the report read.

Bush did not go into the specifics of who lacked in communication, but said it was insufficient between all parties involved.

He said it was important in crisis situations to have existing robust communications with all parties, internal and external.

"I also use the word inclusive, everyone needs to be involved early on in a crisis, they all need to be briefed and communications need to be to the people involved, outward, and upward, and particularly to the public."

The report said the crises exposed weaknesses in the council's emergency management systems, tools, and community relationships which led to inadequate early intelligence to support, public safety information, and decision making.

"They clearly also struggled with the multiple websites and social media channels that had to be utilised and aligned, not all of which were under their direct control or ability to remediate," it read.

"The Auckland Emergency Management twitter account, for example, failed at a critical point in early public communications."

Bush said they could have spent months analysing previous documents, but this was a rapid review.

"Nothing was withheld apart from the [Attorney-General] report ... which no one is entitled to see at this point."

Lessons learned: 'I believe they should start tomorrow'

Asked how pressing the changes needed were, Bush said: "I believe they should start tomorrow", but some action was underway already.

Some lessons were immediately taken into account for the response to Cyclone Gabrielle, for example improving the incident management system, the report stated.

The report findings said the issues of leadership exposed by bad management of the 27 January floods must be addressed.

"Within Auckland Council, there was opportunity for better advice and support to the mayor's office - both before and during the event - by the chief executive and his officials about how to provide leadership, information and assurance to the public during emergencies. "

It said during the weather emergency, Brown and his team should also have been more active in demanding information and asking questions of the chief executive and the emergency management team.

In a long list of recommendations, the report said the council needed to finalise urgently the current review of the Auckland Civil Defence and Emergency Management (ACDEM) Group Plan, with specific procedures around high priority hazard and events.

It said the council should do frequent staff training in emergency management exercises, including complex scenarios.

In regards to the communication with the public, the report recommended the council establish and actively manage strong connections with mana whenua, Pasifika, community groups, infrastructure providers, and lifeline utilities.

"For the future, we suggest [the council] to work on pre-planned and approved emergency messages and alerts so that, with the insertion of relevant details, messages can be quickly despatched on a regular cadence," the panel's report stated.

"This would have provided Aucklanders with the facts about what to do and where to go for help."

Bush said they had not discussed yet if he or the panel would be in charge of ensuring the recommendations were implemented.

We will do better - Wayne Brown

Brown said he accepted the recommendations of the independent review into the response to the Auckland Anniversary floods, and would work to ensure the panel's recommendations were 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 that 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," he said.

Brown said he accepted the findings and that he should have been more assertive in demanding information "so that I could provide Aucklanders with public safety advice, practical support, and reassurance. I assumed that the systems were better than they were."

The Auckland mayor said the preparation was not good enough.

"That's clear from the fact that some of the planned Civil Defence Centres flooded on the night which contributed to delays in establishing the sites. That just shouldn't happen, and we need to make sure we can set-up those sites faster in future."

Bush said the set-up of CDCs could have been done in a more timely fashion.

Brown said the recommendations of the review should be implemented immediately.

"I want Aucklanders to know that I am focused on making sure that we all do better," he said.

Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback said that he, the council's executive leadership, and emergency management staff would consider the report's findings, recommendations, and report back on an implementation plan.

"We cannot ignore the fact that this event was unprecedented. The size and scale of the event, its unexpected intensity, and the complexity of gathering a clear picture of what was unfolding, especially in the first 12 hours, made this event unlike anything we have experienced before. We were not as well prepared for it as we could have been."

He said recommendations which could and should be easily or immediately implemented, would be.

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