23 May 2024

New Zealand declared a national state of emergency Tuesday as severe tropical storm Gabrielle swept away roads, inundated homes and left tens of thousands of residents without power. 

High winds and heavy rain lashed the country’s North Island overnight in what officials called an “unprecedented weather event”.

“It’s been a big night for New Zealanders. A lot of families are displaced, a lot of homes are without power,” Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told reporters in Auckland.

“There has been extensive damage across the country.”

Daylight 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 houses and flood waters blocked several roads, leaving communities stranded.

Local media reported some traumatised residents were forced to swim from their homes to safety.

Gabrielle had barrelled across the South Pacific before bearing down on New Zealand’s northern coast on Sunday.

It brought with it wind gusts of 140 kilometres (87 miles) an hour, pummelled residents with 20 centimetres (almost eight inches) of rain in 24 hours and smashed the coast with 11-metre (36-foot) high waves.

Hipkins said it “was too early to say” how many people had been evacuated from their homes and were without power or cellphone coverage in the wake of the storm.

Minister for Emergency Management Kieran McAnulty signed the declaration at first light as emergency services struggled to cope.

“This is an unprecedented weather event that is having major impacts across much of the North Island,” McAnulty said.

“We are all facing extensive floods, slips, damaged roads and infrastructure.”

This is only the third time New Zealand has declared a state of emergency — the other two were the 2019 Christchurch attacks and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is a significant disaster with a real threat to the lives of New Zealanders,” warned McAnulty, adding that the national state of emergency would last seven days.

He said more rain and high winds were expected Tuesday, further hampering rescue efforts.

“The reports that came in overnight are deeply concerning,” McAnulty told reporters.

“The emergency services are working night and day, but the unstable ground, flood waters and closed roads are making things hard.”

The New Zealand Fire and Emergency services said a firefighter is missing and another is in critical condition after a house collapsed in West Auckland.

“It’s been a tough night for the North Island as a whole, but it’s been especially tough for fire and emergency,” said Kerry Gregory, chief executive of the fire service.

Hipkins said his thoughts are with the two firefighters involved and urged New Zealanders’ to put “safety first”.

The freak weather grounded flights on Monday, but Air New Zealand have said they expect some services to resume on Tuesday afternoon.

Hipkins has promised an aid package of 11.5 million New Zealand dollars ($7.25 million) to help recovery efforts, but McAnulty admitted the cost of the clean-up was set to spiral.

“The honest answer is that it’s not going to be cheap, but that isn’t what we are worried about right now,” he added.

Auckland had been struggling to mop up the damage after flooding claimed four lives at the end of January before the latest storm battered the city.