Cyclone Gabrielle swept away roads, inundated homes and left 225,000 people without power in New Zealand 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 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.
Local media reported some people were forced to swim from their homes to safety. Others waded through stormwaters 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 told AFP.
“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 10:00 pm last night until about 3:00 pm 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 offline.