Cyclone Gabrielle wreaks havoc on New Zealand’s North Island as evacuations continue

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New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has warned the worst is yet to come as Cyclone Gabrielle triggers evacuations, rising floods and blackouts across the North Island.

“Things will probably get worse before they get better,” Hipkins said. “Extreme weather event has come on the back of extreme weather event.”

The cyclone has hit an already waterlogged area, much of which is still recovering from the devastating floods two weeks ago.

Communities in coastal areas continued their evacuations on Monday amid fears that midnight high tides and storm surges would coincide with the worst of the storm. Hipkins warned communities not covered by evacuation orders to “be prepared, stay indoors if you can, and have a plan in case you need to move.”

Related: Weather tracker: historic rainfall wreaks havoc in New Zealand

The low-pressure weather system produced storm surges — a phenomenon in which sea levels generally rise, independent of wave height, inundating coastal areas.

The New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) announced a “record” storm surge of 0.7 m, in addition to waves up to 12 m off the north coast.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered along the entire eastern shoreline of the Bay of Plenty – an area comprising about 400 homes – as well as 100 homes in the Whakatāne district of the Bay of Plenty region.

Ōpōtiki District Council incident controller Gerard McCormack told Radio New Zealand that the worst of the cyclone would hit around the same time as high tide in the middle of the night.

‘We expect large sea waves, floods. The rain is coming,” he said.

Elsewhere, municipalities asked people in vulnerable areas to evacuate themselves. In the coastal town of Whangārei, the municipality urged residents of the central business district to evacuate themselves, as the entire area was vulnerable to flooding.

As of Monday afternoon, nearly all of the upper half of the North Island was covered by local states of emergency, including in Auckland – New Zealand’s largest city with a population of 1.7 million – as well as Northland, Coromandel, Ōpōtiki, Whakatāne, Tairāwhiti and Hauraki.

About 46,000 homes, mostly in Northland, were without power. Power companies said conditions were very challenging as the storm continued, with trees falling through lines and blocking roads. The national weather forecaster MetService said it had broken its record for “red” weather warnings issued across the country, recording wind gusts of 150-160 km/h.

As evacuation centers prepared food and clothing packages Monday afternoon, the government announced an additional $11.5 million for cyclone relief. Hipkins announced the funds, saying 25,000 people already needed help with food, clothing, shelter, bedding and shelter.

“Our social services agencies are overburdened,” he said. “A lot of people just haven’t been able to catch a break… People have lost their homes and their vehicles, families are facing additional challenges getting kids back to school. And many families will face fear and grief.

“The need in the community is significant, and the effect of the repeated weather events has exacerbated that.”

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