Ash Tuesday disrupts Hawke's Bay

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It was time to head inside when the mist began to burn the eyes of Napier-Taupo Rd residents, the same "light rain" then coating a 5km band through Te Haroto in volcanic ash.

Hawke's Bay was heavily dusted in the fallout of the Mt Tongariro eruption that yesterday brought most of the central North Island to a standstill.

Thick layers of ash turned the landscape a dusty grey in the alpine areas northwest of Napier and powdered properties as far away as Wairoa and Hastings.

About 65km from Napier, Te Haroto resident Michelle MacKirdy had just arrived home from work when she felt a light rain start to fall shortly after midnight.

"It was like misty rain at first until it was hitting your face, then it just smelled sulphury and I had to go inside because my eyes started hurting," she said. "I never heard anything then all of a sudden the weather turned misty, then to rain and bits were hitting my face," Ms MacKirdy said.

She quickly put her dog inside and covered the family's water supply.

Her children, Kalsey McLean, 16, and Alena Mitchell, 15, were woken to witness what may be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The travelling ash cloud had left nothing un-coated along a 5km band through the settlement.

Wet surfaces turned the deposits into thick silt-like mud with a distinct sulphuric smell and passing trucks lifted dry sediment into billowing dust clouds.

After the steam-driven eruption about 11.50pm Monday, a smoke plume shot 7000m into the air, the first time the mountain has erupted since the 1890s.

Civil Defence and health warnings were issued; flights cancelled; students kept indoors; and experts unable to offer certainty in the natural disaster's aftermath.

Closer to Napier, Tracy Edmund had to saw pipes open to stop volcanic deposits entering her water supply.

"I woke up to a phone call telling me I have to unhook my tanks. I had to saw the pipe," she said. "It's all over my tank it's just everywhere. When Ruapehu went I didn't have this much."

GeoNet spokesman John Callan said seismic activity had died away.

A downgrade of the GNS colour code, which alerts pilots to activity around a volcano, from red to orange was because there was less ash in the air and the plume was much smaller.

However, it was difficult to predict what would happen next.

"It is too early to predict the next series of events, but we expect heightened activity may continue for several weeks. There are likely to be specific signals of future magma movement beneath the volcano and we continue to monitor the situation through the GeoNet volcano-seismic network of instruments," GeoNet said.

"As with any volcano, an eruption could occur at Tongariro at any time with little or no warning and there is an elevated level of risk, particularly on the northern slopes and valleys of the mountain."

The Bay's posties took no chances, however, reacting to Civil Defence advice for people to avoid being outdoors. Postal deliveries in Napier, Hastings and Waipukurau were cancelled for the day.

"We regret any inconvenience to customers but the safety and wellbeing of our Posties, who are out on foot and bikes, is a priority," New Zealand Post spokesperson Jaimee Burke said.

Ash also fell as far east as Wairoa, coating the town and surrounding countryside in a fine grey dust. Cars were queued five or six deep at the Wairoa Mobil car wash yesterday morning while ash continued to drift down, and many were required to return later because of long waiting times.

"I don't think I've seen it this bad before," Mobil manager Diane Francois said.

"It's very rare, I think, just the extent of the dust.

"People are just so surprised at the amount of ash that has come this way."

The strong sulphur smell could be detected on State Highway 2 as far south as Putorino and the high ground near Mohaka Bridge had received a similar dusting to Wairoa township.

Children at Wairoa Kindergarten who suffered from asthma were taken out of preschool by their parents, and others were kept inside during a particularly bad gust about 11am, blowing across their new playground.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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