Thousands without power, roads closed as storm batters NI (+photos)

By James Ihaka, NZPA

A powerful storm cut a swathe across the North Island today, cutting power to tens of thousands of homes, trapping skiers and making driving hazardous.

Weather forecasters predicted gale force winds would continue across much of the North Island in the next 20 hours as the storm, tipped to be one of the worst in 10 years, moved over the country.

Northland was hit hard first, with wind gusts of up to 130km/h bringing down trees and power lines as the storm made landfall.

Thousands of homes were without power in the region, and when the storm moved down the country it took out power to 53,000 homes in Rodney, Waitakere and the North Shore.

There were another 7000 without power in Auckland in Howick, Otara, Clevedon, Mangere and parts of Waiheke Island, power company Vector said.

Ten thousand skiers headed up Mt Ruapehu in the central North Island and got caught when the fields closed at 10.30am.

Police said 100 vehicles were still in carparks at Whakapapa by 3pm and directed people to stay in their cars while skifield staff worked from carpark to carpark leading cars down the mountain in groups of five.

Skifield operators hope to reopen again tomorrow.

Vector warned of extended outages as conditions were too dangerous for crews and told the public to stay clear of fallen lines.

Onlookers taking pictures on coastal roads, including on Tamaki Drive in Auckland, were urged not to do so as emergency services were stretched.

The Far North District Council reported that a river had burst its banks near the township of Panguru, on the northern side of Hokianga Harbour, and up to 35 people had been evacuated.

One witness reported water up to letterbox-level.

In the middle of the day, Whangarei District Civil Defence cleared the central business district as concern mounted about surface flooding combining with high tide.

High winds hampered the work of linesmen and delays were inevitable in restoring power, said Vector communications manager Philippa White.

Police warned drivers of high wind gusts on the harbour bridge and debris, including roofing iron blown off houses, strewn across the southern motorway.

Roads throughout Northland were closed due to flooding and heavy snow closed the Desert Rd and Napier to Taihape road in the central North Island.

A warning went out tonight to residents of the Coromandel Peninsula and Hauraki Plains to avoid travelling unless necessary as the storm buffeted the area. State Highway 25 south of Thames is closed.

The Kauaeranga River in the Coromandel broke its banks and flooded the highway.

State Highway 2 at Waikino was also closed due to fallen trees.

MetService described the storm as "extremely rare and nasty", predicting that in the 24 hours up to midday tomorrow up to 200mm of rain would fall in the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty, with slightly less north of Auckland.

The storm is expected to be lying off East Cape by tomorrow morning.

"It is one of the largest and deepest lows we've seen for some years," said MetService spokesman Peter Kreft.

Many planning to watch the Bledisloe Cup rugby test between the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Sydney tonight might also be in for a disappointing and frustrating time.

The heavy rain was expected to interfere with the live Sky digital broadcast of the test, due to begin at 10.05pm.

Newstalk ZB reported that some 35,000 houses in Rodney and Waitakere were being affected by power outages.

Power company Vector said high winds had caused a number of faults on its network but the weather was stopping crew from repairing lines or clearing debris.

It warned the customers should be prepared for prolonged outages.

Power companies warned people should be prepared for the possibility there may be extended power cuts and that all fallen power lines should be treated as live.

Fire Communications shift manager Steve Smith said calls were coming in from Cape Reinga to Pukekoe.

He said trees had come down across the north of the North Island "across roads, across driveways, across powerlines".

Mr Smith said roofs had also been blown off and fire fighters had already attended 100 calls today.

When nzherald.co.nz phoned shortly after 2pm, Mr Smith said there were 40 calls waiting and fire fighters were attending 50 incidents.

A top wind speed of 167km/h was recorded in the Bay of Islands about midday today with gusts in Auckland Harbour reaching 125km/h.

Road closures

In Auckland, Tamaki Drive along the waterfront has been closed and motorists have been urged to avoid travelling over the Harbour Bridge where the speed limit has been reduced to 60km/h.

Police asked motorists stranded at Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu to remain in their vehicles and wait for skifield staff to help them off the mountain.

About 100 vehicles are still on the mountain, and staff are working along the Bruce Road to free them.

Snow has closed the Desert Road as well as the Napier-Taihape Road.

Newstalk ZB also reported cars had been trapped in floodwaters near Rakauwahia Road, Kaikohe.

The Northland Regional Council said 90mm to 115mm rain - roughly a fortnight's worth - had fallen on the eastern hills from Kaeo to Whangarei Heads in just 14.5 hours between midnight and 2.30pm today.

The main road through Kaeo was also closed due to flooding.

A spokesperson warned river levels could continue to rise and were being exacerbated by tides just over half-a-metre higher than usual due to low air pressure.

She said river levels at Titoki Bridge - about 15km north of Maungatapere - could rise as much as 12 metres overnight.

The Radio Network's weather analyst Philip Duncan said easing rain in Auckland would return after dark.

"Aucklanders need to brace themselves for a violent 12 hours with winds strong enough to blow down trees, lift roofs and break windows," he said.

"Some of the heavy rain has eased but will likely return after dark, but for now severe gales and storm surges are our biggest concerns".

There were reports a boat had been blown from its mooring at Westhaven Marina and was hitting the lower part of the Harbour Bridge.

Police have been clearing away roofing iron that has blown from houses in Otara onto the Southern Motorway

MetService has issued over a dozen rain and wind warnings for the top half of New Zealand amid predictions of heavy rain, huge seas and howling wind.

Northland District Council asked residents to leave Whangarei's CBD over fears of storm surges combining with high tides this afternoon.

Council spokesman Jason Dawson said council staff went down the CBD but the tide came and went without major incident, though there was surface flooding.

Many planning to watch the Bledisloe Cup rugby test between the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Sydney tonight might also be in for a disappointing and frustrating time.

The heavy rain was also expected to interfere with the live Sky digital broadcast of the test due to begin at 10.05pm.

'Rare and nasty'

MetService earlier said the storm would be "extremely rare and nasty" and was likely to have significant destructive potential.

In the 24 hours to midday tomorrow, it forecast up to 200mm of rain forecast for the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty with slightly less north of Auckland.

The MetService said the rain was likely to cause heavy flooding and slips as streams and river rose quickly.

Philip Duncan said winds in exposed northern regions could gust to 150km/h and 180km/h in parts of the eastern Waikato.

"The predicted air pressure in this depression is unbelievably low and mimics that of modest Atlantic Hurricanes that hit America," he said.

Mr Duncan warned people in the upper North Island to take extreme care today and tomorrow and to avoid heading outdoors.

"Make sure you have your survival kits ready and if you live near small streams you need a plan in case they flood.

"Avoid driving where possible as slips and flooding are extremely likely across Northland, Auckland City, Coromandel and Bay of Plenty today."

In a severe weather warning issued this morning, MetService also warned "potentially damaging wind gusts of around 130km/h" could damage property and make driving dangerous.

"This is a potentially destructive and dangerous storm and people in the North Island, especially from Waikato northwards, would be well advised to avoid unnecessary travel," the MetService said.

Storm to intensify

The storm is predicted to intensify as it moves towards the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty.

Originating off the coast of Queensland, the foul weather is then expected to strike Gisborne and the East Coast on Sunday.

"It is an unusual, intense and very significant depression," said MetService operations manager, Steve Ready, yesterday.

Mr Ready said heavy rain warnings had been issued for Northland, northern Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula, Gisborne and Hawkes Bay.

Swells of up to 7m were expected off the northern and eastern coasts of the North Island.

Philip Duncan said the city was likely to be hit by the cyclone when it was at its peak about midnight tonight.

Harbourmaster John Lee-Richards is advising all recreational boat owners to check their moorings.

The Auckland Region Emergency Management Office said it would monitor the weather situation for slips and surface flooding.

Common sense

But Waitakere Civil Defence manager Bill Morley hoped people would use common sense.

He said driving would be treacherous and coastal areas such as Piha and Karekare were expecting huge seas.

"If the weather hits us as is predicted people should only go outdoors if they absolutely have to," he said.

Despite the grim forecast, Mr Ready said the storm was likely to bring slightly warmer weather to those areas affected most.

"Because of its origin it's bringing down a pool of warm air so temperatures will tend to be warmer than average for this time of year ... even overnight," he said.

WHAT TO DO IN AN EMERGENCY

Civil defence tips:

* Do not travel unless absolutely necessary.

* Open a window on the side of the building away from the wind. This will relieve pressure on the roof and help prevent it lifting.

* Close all curtains to slow down flying glass and airborne objects.

* Stay away from doors and windows. If the wind becomes destructive, shelter further inside the house.

- With NZPA, NZHERALD STAFF

- NZ Herald

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