January is supposed to be a slow news month in New Zealand, with half the country on leisurely summer holidays, schools closed, and the beaches full.
Not this January, where in the last two weeks of the month we saw our world-famous prime minister suddenly resign and replaced by a guy named ‘Chippy’ and as if that wasn’t enough, my city was hit by the worst floods in living memory. We’ll be cleaning up the damage from this slow January for some time.
My suburb out in West Auckland of Titirangi was ground zero for a lot of the damage, as I wrote over at RNZ. We’re still coming out of the storm, but it’s been pretty awe-inspiring and terrifying to see. The photos and video pouring in to newsrooms were astonishing. I’ve covered a LOT of disasters and chaos in my journalism career but I’ve never had one where I had to stop in the middle of work to keep my basement from floating away on floodwaters.
On Friday when the storm hit, it surprised everyone by being far, far greater in magnitude than your usual Auckland rainstorm. Our basement has flooded before, but not like this, where a literal torrent of water rushed through. I’ve never actually felt scared for my home and myself before, but as I was out there in knee-deep water frantically shovelling dirt and clay to redirect the water rushing under our house, I had a few moments of that stark primal fear that you only get when you realise that you are caught up in something far beyond your control. I also thought getting knocked unconscious against my own house in a rainy narrow ditch and drowning would be a bloody stupid way to go.
Just 500m or so down from our house, a massive slip closed off the road and has left a house above precariously close to coming down too. Across the street half our neighbour’s garden just dropped down the hill. All around our neighbourhood are giant slips and open cracks in the earth that look far more like earthquake damage than anything else. The beach we often go swimming about saw its entire yacht club collapse.
My old friend and co-worker Cathy ended up in The New York Times talking about how her land just started slowly slipping away.
Thirty years ago I joined an environmental club at my university and wide-eyed and optimistic we hoped to make things better for the future in our very tiny way. Thirty years have passed and that optimism is gradually draining away, like the flood waters down my street, because of an ossified political culture in many countries, greedy businesses and a world far more interested in pointless culture wars and distractions. People are still denying climate change or screaming conspiracy theories every time something like this happens. Hell, I’m not just pointing fingers – I’m part of the problem, too. My little suburb is hardly alone in extreme weather events the past few years.
This was not your typical midsummer Auckland rain, and indeed it was Auckland’s wettest day in history. This is climate change, new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said. This is the future we’ve all spent the last 30 years dithering about, worrying about, pretending wasn’t going to happen and ultimately, we’re all beginning to understand, doing nowhere near enough about.