Auckland floods: Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency launches review of communications as Chris Hipkins takes aim at 'error'

Waka Kotahi has launched a review of its communications response to the catastrophic Auckland floods on Friday night and apologised directly to the Transport Minister for a delay in updates to the public. 

"Waka Kotahi knows the public needs accurate, reliable and up to date information as quickly as possible in situations like this, and we are sorry we did not meet those expectations on Friday evening," a spokesperson told Newshub.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on Monday morning said the NZ Transport Agency's decision to stop social media updates as the emergency unfolded was an "error" and required an intervention from the minister.

"I'm not happy about that. I don't think the minister was happy about that either and made it very clear to them that we expected them to be back online," he said.

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency's Auckland and Northland Twitter account was posting extensive updates on Friday afternoon and evening about the effects of the catastrophic flooding and torrential rain on the travel network.

However, at 8:05pm, as many Aucklanders were stranded on partially submerged motorways or affected by slips and closed road, Waka Kotahi went dark.

"Due to severe flooding, #SH1 will be CLOSED from Market Rd off-ramp northbound. Please delay your journey. There will be no more updates on this post tonight," the Twitter account said.

Attached to that post was a picture of the main road looking like a river with cars trying to drive through the rising water.

Replies to the tweet are overwhelmingly critical, with many astonished the account could be "knocking off early during an emergency".

That was the last tweet until 10:38pm, after a state of emergency had been declared for the city.

During that interlude, Transport Minister Michael Wood made his feelings clear online, noting he had seen Waka Kotahi had stopped tweeting.

"I have seen this and instructed the Agency to re-open their channels urgently. This will happen shortly. The best source of information is CDEM but there also needs to be clear comms from WK."

Wood would later say it was his expectation Waka Kotahi regularly updated their feeds. Since that 10:38pm tweet, the agency has been constantly posting the latest developments.

In a statement on Monday, a Waka Kotahi spokesperson said it issued an apology on Saturday morning about delays to updates.

It has also "apologised to our minister for the delay in communications", the spokesperson said.

"The traffic advisory team based in our Auckland Transport Operations Centre (ATOC) handle online social media posts for the region and has three staff trained for this role.

"Waka Kotahi is undertaking a review into what occurred during Friday evening’s unprecedented weather event response in relation to the delay in social media updates with a view to ensuring this situation does not occur in the future. 

"However we can advise that a member of the team did return from leave that evening to ensure that updates and information would continue to be provided to the public."

The spokesperson said the agency is providing regular updates to the public and to media as severe weather continues to affect the country.

"Our Journey Planner page is updated by our traffic operations centres 24/7 to provide the latest available information on state highway closures and disruptions.  Remember to refresh the page when checking the status of highways to ensure the latest updates are displayed."

Chris Hipkins surveying Auckland on Saturday.
Chris Hipkins surveying Auckland on Saturday. Photo credit: Pool.

'An error'

Hipkins and ministers have so far mostly avoided criticising communications by saying the response to the emergency would be later reviewed and lessons would be learnt.

But the new Prime Minister told AM on Monday morning that Waka Kotahi made a mistake.

"They clearly underestimated the situation that they were dealing with. They did log off at around 7:30pm," Hipkins said.

"The minister, Michael Wood, as soon as he became aware of that, was in touch with them and then they went back into the office and they logged back on again. They made an error there. It was an error that was quickly fixed.

"Of course, I'm not happy about that. I don't think the minister was happy about that either and made it very clear to them that we expected them to be back online and providing regular updates, and they did do that. But yes, they shouldn't have logged off.

"As soon as the Government became aware that that is what they had done, we intervened and we fixed it."

Host Ryan Bridge pointed out that Hipkins has previously defended an increase in communications staff across the public service.

"People are wanting to engage with the public service differently. They are wanting to access information about the public services that are available to them differently. They don't want to go to a website and find a whole lot of information they can't understand. They want to know it is written in plain language," Hipkins said last Monday.

"A lot of those communications staff are doing that kind of work… they are doing the work about making sure the communications Government has about what support is available to New Zealanders is actually accessible and understandable."

Last May, Newshub reported that Waka Kotahi's communications team had more than doubled since Labour entered office. Government minister David Parker couldn't say whether they were all justified.

The communications - or lack thereof - from other authorities on Friday night has also come underfire. Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown wasn't heard from until late in the night, though he says he was at his desk in constant contact with officials and ministers all evening.