Cyclone Gabrielle swept away roads, flooded homes and left 225,000 people without power in New Zealand as a national state of emergency was declared on Tuesday.
Strong winds and heavy rain battered the country’s populous North Island in what Prime Minister Chris Hipkins called “the most significant weather event New Zealand has seen this century”.
“The impact is significant and widespread,” he said. “The severity and damage we are seeing has not been experienced by any generation.”
The severity was revealed in daylight on Tuesday, with roads eaten away by landslides and collapsed houses buried in mud, silt and piles of storm detritus. Falling trees snapped power lines and floodwaters blocked several major roads, leaving communities stranded.
Local media reported that some people were forced to swim from their homes to safety. Others waded through the stormy waters, while some were forced to take shelter in place.
An estimated 2,500 people have been displaced from their homes, but that number seems certain to rise.
More than three-quarters of New Zealand’s five million residents live in the North Island, where the brunt of the storm is being felt and where some areas are still inaccessible by road and without electricity 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 mobile sites were offline.
International and domestic flights have been grounded, with Air New Zealand alone reporting more than 600 flights canceled and 35,000 passengers affected, although airports are gradually reopening.
The military was deployed to help with evacuations, while New Zealand’s Fire and Emergency Services said one firefighter was injured and another was missing when a house collapsed west of Auckland. A search is underway.