In the face of adversity – the spirit of old Grey Lynn endures

Grey Lynn musicians Jenny Cruse, Linn Lorkin, Hershal Hersher & Mike Lee at Linn and Hershal’s home in Cockburn Street, Grey Lynn. (Photo Andrew Pickering).

The massive floods which deluged the city on the evening of 27 January and the tropical cyclone which smashed into the region and much of the North Island two weeks later, were a devastating double punch, recovery from which will take years and tens of billions of dollars.

In Auckland the killer storms took six lives, including MOTAT tram volunteer David Leonard, and then heroic Muriwai volunteer firefighters, Dave van Zwanenberg and Craig Stevens. It wrecked hundreds of homes and severely damaged thousands of others. Many others, now precariously situated on eroded cliff tops, have been rendered vulnerable as have many more located in or adjacent to water courses. Just like the Christchurch earthquake of 2011, and now in Turkey and Syria where the death toll has reached over 45,000, it’s a brutal reminder of the power of nature which we disrespect at our peril. Environmentalists have long warned us that humans have been waging war against nature – now it seems nature is waging war against us.

The two massive storms are a wake-up call and raise searching questions about official assumptions of endless growth and our climate change priorities. Clearly, we are failing to match the drive for urban intensification with adequate infrastructure, stormwater in particular, and even failing to manage our existing infrastructure, especially street catch-pits.

These events have demonstrated just how unrealistic is the drive to intensify Auckland anywhere and everywhere, embodied in Council’s Plan Change 78, given the geographic and climate realities.

One could get the impression from the big developer lobby and political ‘urbanists’, that Auckland is flat like a Monopoly board, with all that that suggests. They overlook just how rugged Auckland’s natural terrain really is, especially in our ward; a series of ridges, gullies, flood plains and eroding sea cliffs, from Hobson Bay through to the Meola Reef.  A city we may be, but that’s just the ‘skin’ on the surface. We ignore geography and the forces of nature at our cost.

Of the three local board areas which make up our ward, Aotea – Great Barrier, Waiheke and Waitematā, interestingly it was the city rather than the islands which sustained the most damage. The 27th January floods severely impacted parts of St Marys Bay, Herne Bay and Grey Lynn. The damage to properties on Dryden, lower Hakanoa, Cockburn, Tutanekai and Sackville streets Grey Lynn was localised but quite devastating. Here dozens of people lost their homes, some permanently and least four people came close to drowning that night.

The courage and fortitude of those most affected deeply impressed me. Throughout that long anniversary weekend, despite the shock and trauma and damage to their houses, men and women toiled long hours to remove flood damaged carpets, curtains, heavy furniture, household appliances and to try to salvage personal items. Some were obliged to remove internal lining and soaked insulation from their houses. They laboured those long days without any outside assistance from the authorities, helped only by other local residents, including cabinet minister David Parker, who generously pitched in to lend a hand. 

I would like to mention some of the Grey Lynn locals I met in the aftermath of the floods, who in the time of crisis rose to the occasion. Judge David McNaughton was one. The McNaughton home was damaged in the flood, as was the nearby Hakanoa reserve in which David and local volunteers have worked so hard to remove weeds and revegetate with native species. During this crisis and the days following David in his non-judicial baseball cap and jeans was a rallying figure for the neighbourhood. Across the street Dr Joseph Earles during the height of the flood coolly kayaked over what was a 3 metre hedge to rescue neighbours Dick Johnson and Anna Coddington and their two children who had been trapped in an upstairs bedroom by rapidly rising flood waters, roaring down from Grey Lynn Park. Dick & Anna and the children survived but their once lovely home is totally wrecked. During one of my evening calls to the area with a council officer to hustle up more rubbish skips, I saw two women lugging flood damaged items from a basement. The pair turned out to be our much-loved chanteuse, musician and songwriter Linn Lorkin and her friend, singer Jennie Cruse. We were invited upstairs, thankfully undamaged, whereupon in no time at all Linn, partner Hershal Hersher and Jennie, were performing wonderful music. I found it very moving. A truly memorable moment in that rather grim time. On the Saturday immediately after the floods Linn and Hershal had performed a concert from their porch, boosting the morale of their hard-pressed neighbours up and down the street who paused from their labours to clap and cheer. This is the true spirit of old Grey Lynn undaunted in the face of adversity. It’s the kiwi spirit, now to be seen across our cyclone damaged, suffering, wounded country, especially Hawkes Bay and Tairāwhiti. The survival of that spirit is one comfort we can take from this tragic time.

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