Cyclone Gabrielle: New Zealanders forced to seek safety during floods

  • By Kelly Ng and Antoinette Radford
  • BBC News

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Aerial photos show the extent of the flooding in Hawke’s Bay in eastern New Zealand

Residents had to swim to safety from flooded homes in New Zealand after Cyclone Gabrielle battered the north of the country.

The government on Tuesday declared a national state of emergency over the devastation caused by the storm – only for the third time in history.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the disaster was New Zealand’s worst weather event in a century.

Officials said at least 225,000 people were without power as of Tuesday.

A firefighter remains missing after being caught in a landslide in Muriwai, west of Auckland. A second firefighter involved suffered life-threatening injuries, rescue workers said.

Damage from the storm was most severe in coastal communities on the far north and east coasts of the North Island – with the Hawke’s Bay, Coromandel and Northland areas hardest hit.

Almost a third of New Zealand’s 5.1 million people live in the affected regions.

Marcelle Smith, whose family lives on a cliff-side property in Parua Bay on the east coast of the North Island, told the BBC she fled inland to higher ground with her two young children on Monday night.

Her husband had stayed behind to take protective measures for their house. Some established dams had already been washed away and were still struggling with wild weather on Tuesday.

“We are trying everything we can to protect what we have put our lives into. At this point, man is against nature,” she told the BBC.

Local media has reported that some Hawke’s Bay residents had to swim through bedroom windows to escape as water flooded their homes. People in the area have been warned they could be without power for weeks.

Aerial photos of flooded areas showed people stranded on rooftops awaiting rescue.

The massive extent of the damage includes uprooted trees, bent streetlights and poles, and a number of flooded homes.

The New Zealand Defense Forces released dramatic images of officers rescuing a stranded sailor whose yacht was washed at sea when its anchor cable snapped in high winds. It was located off Great Barrier Island after an overnight search mission, authorities said.

image source, New Zealand Defense Forces

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Navy officials rescued a stranded sailor whose boat was washed into the sea

In Auckland, too, more than 100 people fled to evacuation centers overnight, officials said.

“The severity and damage we are seeing has not been experienced in a generation,” Mr Hipkins said on Tuesday.

“We’re still building a picture of the impact of the cyclone as it continues to unfold. But what we do know is that the impact is significant and widespread.”

He has pledged NZ$11.5 million (£6 million; US$7.3 million) in aid to help those affected by the disaster.

Emergency Management Secretary Kieran McAnulty declared a national emergency on Tuesday morning, describing the storm as “unprecedented.”

The emergency order allows the government to streamline its response to the disaster. It has been applied in the Northland, Auckland, Tairawhiti, Tararua, Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Hawke’s Bay regions.

New Zealand has only declared a national emergency twice so far – at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

The government attributes the scale of the disaster to climate change.

“The severity of this is of course compounded by the fact that our global temperatures have already risen by 1.1 degrees,” said Climate Secretary James Shaw.

“We need to stop making excuses for inaction. We can’t bury our heads in the sand when the beach floods. We must act now.”

Cyclone Gabrielle has struck New Zealand just two weeks after unprecedented downpours and flooding in the same region that killed four people.

The country’s weather agency, MetService, said Tuesday Auckland received about half of its annual rainfall in just the first 45 days of 2023.

MetService said conditions are expected to improve in the coming days and heavy rain warnings are lifted for some parts of the country. But it has warned wind could do more damage.

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Watch: Huge waves and heavy rain as Cyclone Gabrielle hits New Zealand

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