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A mini tornado ripped through Cambridge in the early hours of this morning, taking off roofs and downing trees and powerlines.

The tornado hit without warning about 3am today and five minutes later when it swept eastwards out of town, more than 100 houses had lost or damaged roofs. Trees and powerlines were left sprawled on the ground and many cars were damaged.

No one is believed to have been hurt but Cambridge chief fire officer Don Gerrand, said damage was widespread and many homes and parts of Cambridge were without power at first light.

Mr Gerrand, said the town's volunteer firefighters responded within minutes but power was cut to the fire station and torches were needed. Communications were not affected as radios went to battery power.

"It is the biggest we have had here. A hotel lost its roof, so did the BP Service station and an old folks' home.

"It has created a bit of destruction right through from one end of the town to the other."

Mr Gerrand said within five minutes the tornado had gone, leaving firefighters astounded at the damage.

"An 80-year-old oak tree was just plucked out of the ground."

He said the power of nature was very scary,.

"One resident had a budgie aviary and it is no longer there - or the budgies. It is not even on his section," Mr Gerrand said.

Damage was mostly to iron roofs with sheets of long run iron ripped off.

"There is (roofing) iron hanging out of trees, power lines, all over the place."

He said heavier concrete tile roofs seem to have mostly been left intact.

Oakdale resthome manager Jenny Crawford said parts of the building's roof lifted off last night and there was structural damage to the building.

Twelve rooms were damaged during the storm that Ms Crawford described as "chaotic".

But this morning the resthome had power and water and everyone had eaten breakfast.

Ms Crawford said two extra staff had come in on their day off and neighbours had stepped in to help out.

"The most upsetting thing is that there are a dozen residents who can't go back to their rooms. With the water damage, we're just checking that the power is safe down there," she said.

Oakdale worker Tracey Espin said she heard a loud rumble like a train, just after 3am.

"I thought I heard like a train coming or a bit of rumbling getting louder and louder. I opened our ranchslider and had a look.

"Just across from us there is a big park and lots of trees and leaves. There was a wind and all these things coming straight towards us.

"I quickly shut the doors and in the car park our cars all started shaking and all of a sudden there was a bang and it felt like the roof was lifting off."

After ringing for help from the Fire Service, Mrs Espin and Ms Colvin helped the 12 elderly residents from the damaged wing struggle through ankle-deep water to the lounge where they were wrapped in blankets and given a cup of tea.

Metservice forecaster Bob Lake said it was unclear if it was a tornado or just strong winds but whatever it was, it was associated with a front that came through early this morning.

He said it was either a real tornado or what is called a "down burst" - a rush of wind that spreads out.

- NZPA and NZHERALD STAFF