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New Zealand declares national state of emergency as Cyclone Gabrielle lashes country

AUCKLAND – Cyclone Gabrielle swept away roads, inundated homes and left more than 225,000 people without power in New Zealand on Tuesday, as a national state of emergency was declared.

High winds and driving rain lashed the country’s populous North Island, in what Prime Minister Chris Hipkins called the “most significant weather event New Zealand has seen in this century”.

“The impact is significant and it is widespread,” he said. “The severity and the damage that we are seeing has not been experienced in a generation.”

Daylight on Tuesday revealed the severity of the disaster: roads eaten away by landslips and collapsed homes buried in mud, silt and a slew of storm detritus.

Falling trees smashed power lines and floodwaters blocked several major roads, leaving communities stranded.

The New Zealand Defence Force personnel airlifted people from their rooftop by a military helicopter in the Esk Valley, near the North Island city of Napier, on February 14, 2023. New Zealand declared a national state of emergency as Cyclone Gabrielle swept away roads, inundated homes and left tens of thousands of residents without power. Picture: New Zealand Defence Force / AFP

Local media reported some people were forced to swim from their homes to safety. Others waded through storm waters on foot. Some were forced to shelter in place.

“During the night a huge tree came down in front of our house, just missing my Ute. It blocked the road and we couldn’t get out,” 53-year-old Whangamata resident Brendon Pugh said.

“It’s been scary, I am an ex-coastguard but I have never seen anything like it in 20 years living here,” he said.

“The water in our road was up to my shins, then waist-deep in places. We were without power from 10pm last night until about 3pm today and we had no internet.”

An estimated 2,500 people have been displaced from their homes, but that number looks certain to rise.

More than three-quarters of New Zealand’s five million residents live on the North Island, where the brunt of the storm is being felt.

Some areas are still inaccessible by road and without power or telecommunications.

The main road between the capital Wellington and the country’s largest city Auckland is closed. New Zealand’s three main mobile phone networks said a total of 455 cell sites were off line.

An aerial photo taken on February 14, 2023 shows the Waiohiki bridge and surrounds inundated by the Tutaekuri River after Cyclone Gabrielle made landfall near the city of Napier, in New Zealand. Gabrielle swept away roads, inundated homes and left more than 100,000 people without power. Picture: AFP

International and domestic flights were grounded, with Air New Zealand alone reporting more than 600 flights cancelled and 35,000 customers affected, although airports are gradually reopening.

The military has been deployed to help with evacuations.

Cyclone Gabrielle formed off the north-eastern coast of Australia in the Coral Sea on February 8, before barrelling across the South Pacific.

It bore down on New Zealand’s northern coast on Sunday, bringing gusts of 140km/h.

In the next 24 hours, coastal communities were doused with 20cm of rain and pounded by 11-metre waves.

Many parts of northern New Zealand were already waterlogged when Gabrielle hit, having been drenched by record rainfall two weeks ago.

The national Met Service said Auckland Airport received 48% of its annual average rainfall in just the past 45 days.

Cape Reinga on the northern tip of the North Island recorded 30 consecutive hours of gale-force winds.

Massey University Professor Christine Kenney warned that New Zealand is living in the age of “cascading” natural disasters – where the impacts of repeated severe weather events build up over time.

“Cascading natural hazard events fuelled by climate change are the new norm for Auckland,” she said ahead of Tuesday’s emergency.

Climate scientist Daithi Stone said Cyclone Gabrielle had been feeding off unusually warm seas, driven by a combination of climate change and La Nina weather patterns.

“Gabrielle is very much part of the story this summer of a warm nearby ocean using a warm atmosphere to pump rain onto Aotearoa,” he said Tuesday, using the Maori-language name for New Zealand.

“It is also part of the global story of tropical cyclones becoming more intense under human-induced climate change.”

“The emergency services are working night and day, but the unstable ground, floodwaters and closed roads are making things hard,” said Minister for Emergency Management Kieran McAnulty.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand said one firefighter was injured and another disappeared when a house collapsed west of Auckland. A search is under way.

AFP

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