A tornado has ripped through Hokitika, lifting rooves off buildings and toppling road signs.
Witnesses at the beach saw the huge gust of wind coming off the Tasman Sea at about 12.30pm today.
The tornado burst through the town and lifted the roof off the Railway Hotel Motel in Weld Street, and witnesses saw debris flying around in the air and hitting neighbouring buildings.
John Jones, owner of the Mountain Jade Backpackers opposite the hotel, said he was cleaning in the lounge when he heard a "loud thud''.
He said: "It went quiet outside and then the wind picked up and there was a loud thud and everything just stopped.
"The winds just ripped the roof off of the Railway Hotel Motel and we saw the debris flying in the air and hitting anything in their way.
"We have quite big windows on our building and I was afraid some of the debris from across the road might have caused a lot of damage.
"I've never seen anything like it in all my years living here.''
Jewellery maker Charlotte Breeze, 27, lives above Ocean Paua in Weld Street and was in her flat when she heard a "huge roar'' outside the window.
She added: "Everyone in the town is really shaken up. It was quite busy for a Sunday in Hokitika and quite a few people were at the beach.
"I was just in my flat when I heard a huge roar and looked outside to see debris flying around in the air. It was scary and there has been quite a bit of damage to the town.
"We had a French couple come in who were on the beach who saw the tornado coming in off the Tasman Sea, and stopped to take some pictures.
"They thought they had quite a bit of time and they said they waited a bit too long and ended up running into the town to get away from it.''
Philip Duncan, head weather analyst for WeatherWatch, said today's conditions were perfect in the south for this kind of weather event. "The mix of high pressures and rain moving across the south makes for perfect conditions for a tornado.
"Winds normally have to be up to 100km/h to lift roofs off and blow windows out, so this one must have been strong.
"We don't know if it was a strong gust of wind or a tornado but it caused extensive damage.
"Looking at the conditions the west coast could experience a repeat of this in the coming hours.''
Nobody was available for comment at the Railway Hotel Motel and it is not known if anyone was injured.