by Áine Kelly-Costello
The evening of January 27, Rhonda Comins’ daughter found her mother’s Mount Eden driveway neck deep in flood water. She was forced to turn around without going in and told Rhonda, who has low vision and lives alone, that she should call 111 if she felt unsafe and needed to evacuate.
The inside of Rhonda’s flat was fairing comparatively better–the water had soaked through the carpet which was acting as an absorbent sponge. But Rhonda says the stress was immense, trying to remove everything from the floor, settle her young guide dog in the bedroom and figure out whether they would be okay inside or needed to evacuate, given that opening the ranch slider front door risked letting substantially more floodwater in. She was okay to stay in the end, though is still managing the ramifications a month on.
Floodwaters, strong winds, prolonged power outages and landslides are just some of the manifestations of extreme weather which Aotearoa’s north island has had to withstand in the first two months of 2023. Between the Auckland flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle, 15 people have lost their lives. Many have lost homes, belongings, pets, and seen their livelihood affected. People, including many from the disability community, have been shunted into temporary accommodation which often does not meet their needs, and have had to jump through hoops to access financial assistance. But it’s also important to acknowledge the distress caused by the smaller-scale impacts of these events.
Sally Britnell, similar to Rhonda, lives alone with her guide dog Sienna and two cats. On January 27, her North Shore backyard turned into a knee-deep pond, her driveway flooded and the water in her laundry room reached ankle level. The most immediate source of stress was the disorientation of going outside. There was no apparent way for Sally to evacuate if she needed to. Family support wasn’t an option. Ubers were not running. Sally has just a small bit of usable vision. Travelling on foot would have been unsafe in floodwaters, as well as extremely challenging with all three animals.
Besides, guide dog Sienna did not want to walk through the water and refused to toilet outside for two days. Sally was also apprehensive about the risk of her hearing aids getting wet while charging.
Afterwards, Sally needed to navigate the logistics of a floating broom breaking the laundry room window glass, damage to shelves and other items, gib needing replacing and cracks in the concrete carport, as well as traversing footpaths strewn with flood debris. A fortnight later in preparation for the cyclone, Auckland Council provided information about where sandbags could be picked up, but there was no system for sandbag delivery for those who needed it. Sally also got a print letter in the post about checking her property’s drainage, though says that, to their credit, a council staffer was receptive to her subsequent feedback about the need for accessible formats.
Sally found connection with both other guide dog users, local information, and a member of the Civil Defence team on social media to be beneficial. But she also worries about those in our community who weren’t on social media, or even online at all. The information vacuum was notably more acute in the floods than in the cyclone even for those who were well-connected. Observing the social media feeds of response agencies, most of the updates about evacuation centres didn’t include info on their accessibility, phone numbers often came without an alternate email address and videos weren’t always captioned or transcribed. Text was frequently posted inside images with minimal contrast, without being copied into a description or alternative text field.
That said, there were proactive disability response efforts within the community and sector.
Over the weekend after the Friday flooding, Whaikaha | Ministry of Disabled People (https://tinyurl.com/2r4bk82f) and Disabled Persons Assembly (https://tinyurl.com/35wvdas3) both created and kept updating webpages rounding up useful information for the disability community, including info in alternate formats. Blind Citizens NZ also distributed information via email and worked to support the on-the-ground response from Civil Defence.
Whaikaha also brought key stakeholders together in an effort to help get community concerns to the appropriate agencies and had a team working to ensure disabled people and whānau could access support.
After the floods, the Ministry’s Deputy Chief Executive Operational Design and Delivery Amanda Bleckmann told Stuff (https://tinyurl.com/4t6xrxbu) they were prioritising the wellbeing of disabled people who were impacted. The Whakarongorau Aotearoa telehealth help-line was also stood up for disabled people and whānau who were seeking support, needing information, or passing on concerns for someone’s safety.
Blind Low Vision NZ also made an effort to reach clients in impacted areas after the extreme weather. Staff member Tristin Ireland led the service provider’s effort for the cyclone. These calls were completed by 13 staff within four days, with a process for contacting clients’ nearest of kin, trying to contact the client multiple times and for safety referring the names of those who weren’t reachable to Civil Defence. Tristin says that most people did not need cyclone supplies but took advantage of being in contact with BLVNZ to request other blindness-related items. He says that moving forward, BLVNZ’s primary service providers, who are the first port of call for new clients, will be attentive to raising the topic of disaster preparedness.
Still, there are lessons to be gathered and learned for the inevitable “next time”. A thorough response review to hear from those most marginalised in the disability community who were impacted would be beneficial.
Focus askedWhaikaha whether there was any review of the response planned from a disability perspective and the Ministry replied that they would contribute to the evaluations other agencies undertake from a disability perspective. So far, lessons which shouldn’t be surprises but which the extreme weather has reinforced (https://tinyurl.com/4t6xrxbu) include ensuring people with medical needs can reliably access back-up power during an outage, as well as providing prompt, informative and accessible communication and support for all aspects of emergency response, from evacuation to supply delivery to follow-up processes. Disability-inclusive response should be embedded as a whole-of-government and local government responsibility, and a human rights framework (https://tinyurl.com/3sjsu3hp) should underpin it.
Meanwhile at ground level, literally, the stress Rhonda experienced was avoidable. Not only was the flood risk at her apartment previously known, but a builder neighbour had also proposed a concrete barricade solution for managing that risk. Rhonda says her landlord did not act on the suggestion till after this year’s floods and also did not disclose the flood risk when the place was on the market. Rhonda says it should be incumbent on landlords to keep housing safe for tenants and there should be a process for independently auditing properties to make sure that’s happening. She reminds us climate breakdown only makes this imperative stronger. “We’ve been given a kick up the ass because this is what’s being predicted with global warming and a tiny taste of the extreme weather to come.”