WELLINGTON – The New Zealand government declared a national state of emergency Tuesday after Cyclone Gabrielle battered the country’s north in what officials described as the nation’s most severe weather event in years.
A firefighter was missing and another was rescued with critical injuries after they were caught in a landslide overnight near the country’s largest city, Auckland, authorities said.
Auckland was swamped two weeks ago by a record-breaking storm that killed four people.
The national emergency declaration enables the government to support affected regions and provide additional resources, the government said. It is only the third national emergency ever declared.
The country was lashed by intense rainfall overnight that forced evacuations of 2,500 people and brought widespread flooding, road closures including the main route between Auckland and the capital Wellington, and left communities isolated and without telecommunications.
Weather conditions eased Tuesday as the weather system tracked southeast over ocean away from New Zealand, a nation of 5 million people.
But 225,000 homes and businesses remained without power and people were continuing to be evacuated, emergency services reported.
The power grid had not experienced such damage since 1988, when Cyclone Bola became one of the most destructive storms to ever hit New Zealand, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said.
Hipkins could not yet say how the scale of the latest destruction compared to Cyclone Bola.
“Certainly, the reports that we’ve had is that it’s the most extreme weather event that we’ve experienced in a very long time,” Hipkins told reporters in Wellington. “In the fullness of time, we’ll know how it compares with Cyclone Bola."
Hipkins said British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had phoned offering his country’s support and assistance. The Australian government also said New Zealand’s near-neighbor was ready to provide support where and if needed, Hipkins said.
The national state of emergency includes six regions where local emergencies had already been declared. They are Auckland, as well as the regions of Northland, Tairawhiti, Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Hawke’s Bay.
A weather station in the Hawke’s Bay and Napier region recorded three times more rain overnight than usually falls for the entire month of February, MetService meteorologist Lewis Ferris said.
“It’s going to be wet, sodden devastation around there,” Ferris said. “We’ve seen the worst of the storm now. We’ve just got to get through today.”
Hipkins said the military was already on the ground on the hardest-hit northern reaches of the North Island helping with evacuations and keeping essential supplies moving.
“I want to acknowledge the situation New Zealanders have been waking up to this morning,” Hipkins told reporters. “A lot of families displaced. A lot of homes without power. Extensive damage done across the country.”
“It will take us a wee while to get a handle on exactly what’s happened and, in due course, helping with the clean-up when we get to that point,” Hipkins added.
Much of Auckland ground to a halt Monday as train services were canceled, libraries and most schools were closed, and authorities asked people to make only essential trips.
Air New Zealand canceled all domestic flights to and from Auckland through Tuesday morning, as well as many international flights.
International and domestic flights had resumed Tuesday afternoon at Auckland Airport, but disruptions and delays were expected for the next few days, Hipkins said.
This story corrects the scope of New Zealand's emergency declaration. It was nationwide, not just for North Island.