New Zealand’s Largest City Grapples With Aftermath of Devastating Floods

A child asleep on a couch floating in the water. Two thousand passengers trapped in a flooded airport. Hundreds of people evacuated from their homes.

The morning after the worst downpour since record-keeping began for Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, residents were grappling with the scale of the damage after flash flooding swept through on Friday night.

Late Saturday morning, Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s new prime minister, flew over the city in the cockpit of a military plane from Wellington, the capital, to assess the damage from the air. An earlier departure had been delayed by bad weather.

Two people have been found dead, the police said, and at least two others have been reported missing. The emergency services responded to more than 700 weather-related incidents, the authorities said, amid a record number of more than 2,000 calls in less than 24 hours. The city received almost 240 millimeters of rain — almost 10 inches — of rainfall in just a few hours, according to the MetService, the country’s national weather service.

Just before 10 p.m. on Friday night, Wayne Brown, Auckland’s mayor, announced a local state of emergency after urging from other officials, allowing the local emergency services to draw on additional resources to help cope with the situation.

“This is going to be a horrible night for thousands of Aucklanders and their families,” Mr. Brown said at a news conference. “My thoughts are with those Aucklanders affected, including many of those who have been evacuated from their homes and have a hard night ahead.”

Mr. Brown, who has been criticized for the lateness of the emergency declaration, said that his role was not “to rush out with buckets,” and he disputed whether other New Zealand cities would have coped as well with a comparable disaster.

Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s new prime minister, on a plane flight to assess the damage from the air on Saturday.Credit…Pool photo by Ryan Benton

Auckland, a city of 1.7 million people, sprawls across dozens of volcanoes and three harbors, with many people living close to beaches or on the edge of its jungly native wilderness. The city’s vertiginous streets had left people in low-lying areas especially vulnerable as the water swept through, resulting in power outages, burst water pipes and displacement of people from damaged and inundated homes.

Overnight, the emergency services had helped to clear roads submerged by the rain.

“This streets are still wet and covered in silt, but they’re mostly passable,” said Richard Hills, a city councilor. “In some areas, the debris is sitting very high on fences and power poles. It’s sort of unbelievable.”

Early on Friday evening, as the rain began to intensify, members of the Muriwai Volunteer Lifeguard Service were asked by the emergency services to be on standby.

Hours later, volunteers in an inflatable boat wended their way through the floodwaters in pitch-darkness as they attempted to reach people caught in flooded homes. At one house in Helensville, lifeguards climbed through a window to rescue a family of five, who were trapped indoors in water that came up to their chest.

“There was a 3-year-old boy blissfully asleep on a floating couch,” said Glenn Gowthorpe, a member of the squad. After being gently picked up by a lifeguard, the child briefly opened his eyes and then went back to sleep, he added.

“The lifeguards got him out the window, out into the inflatable rescue boat,” he said. “It actually looked like a disaster movie set. There was power lines hanging down almost in the water, trees everywhere. What was once a tiny little creek was quite a big river.”

Vehicles stranded on a road in Auckland on Friday.Credit…via Reuters

Fast-moving water, which quickly rose from being a couple of feet deep to submerging whole basements, carried planks of wood and branches and scattered them throughout the city.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever seen anything like it — no one kind of realized how swift that water is,” said Mandy Crawford, an osteopath in Auckland. “Some people have gone out and to try and help, and they’ve just been taken away by it.”

Ms. Crawford, 45, said one of her friends had been hit by floating debris and hospitalized. “He’s got injuries down to the bone,” she said. “It’s almost like a tsunami — all the debris that’s in the water, it’s just done some pretty major damage to people’s vulnerable bodies.”

Assessing the damage done to her clinic, she said on Saturday morning that it was unlikely to be salvaged, because of the contaminated water, and would have to be rebuilt.

“I’m a bit numb, in shock,” she said.

The flooding followed three very difficult years for the city, when pandemic closures and disruptions had led to long stretches where she was unable to earn.

“It’s no one’s fault, but we are continually taking that hit,” Ms. Crawford said. “What the hell else can life throw at us?”

Landslides forced some people to leave their homes or left them facing major repairs in the weeks and months to come.

“There was really intense rain, so intense you could barely see out the window,” said Cathy O’Sullivan, 42, whose home backs onto a reserve leading to Little Shoal Bay, on the city’s North Shore. “I went downstairs and just saw that some of the land was slipping away.”

The flooded domestic terminal at Auckland Airport on Friday.Credit…Olivia Neill, via Reuters

She put together a go-bag of socks, clothes, supplies and wine, as well as food for her two dogs, and spent a sleepless night waiting for updates from her partner, who was trapped in a lounge at Auckland Airport, where he had planned to board a flight to Canada.

“They were told to stay where they were until they knew what was happening,” Ms. O’Sullivan said. “It was pretty hard getting out of the airport, because there were thousands of people who wanted to leave and they were only letting through a few taxis at a time because of the floodwater.”

The airport, the country’s largest, closed overnight after the terminal was flooded. In images shared on social media, travelers could be seen trying to push suitcases and baggage trolleys through water that came up to their knees. Dozens of flights have been canceled and rescheduled, and the airport has temporarily suspended international departures.

Despite the damage, the flooding has not left Aucklanders entirely dispirited. Stopping at a gas station on Saturday morning, there was a clear sense of solidarity among fellow customers, Ms. O’Sullivan said.

“Everyone was super chatty, just making sure everyone was OK, showing each other photos of flooding in their houses and just checking in on each other and making sure they had a place to stay if they needed one,” she said. “It was quite human and quite nice to see.”

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