Auckland: New Zealand declared a national state of emergency as Cyclone Gabrielle swept away roads, inundated homes and left more than 100,000 people without power.

High winds and heavy rain lashed the country’s populous North Island, 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.”

This is only the third time New Zealand has declared a state of emergency – following the 2019 Christchurch attacks and the Covid-19 pandemic.

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 power lines and flood waters blocked several roads, leaving communities across the country’s north stranded.

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

Others waded through stormwaters on foot.

“At about midnight we got the emergency text saying ‘evacuate’,” recalled Jane Scott, a resident of coastal community Muriwai, who gathered a torch and a few essentials before seeking refugee in a local community centre.

“It was pitch black and pouring with rain,” she told local channel TVNZ. “It was very scary.”

Cyclone Gabrielle formed off the northeastern coast of Australia in the Coral Sea on Feb 8, before barrelling across the South Pacific.

It bore down on New Zealand’s northern coast on Sunday, bringing gusts of 140kph, spraying coastal communities with 20cm of rain in 24 hours and 11m-high waves.

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.

Hipkins said it “was too early to say” how many people had been evacuated from their homes and were without power or cellphone coverage. — AFP