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Roofs went up and powerlines came down when a tornado hit the south Taranaki town of Opunake last night.

The tornado struck about 7.30pm, following a severe weather warning for the area from the MetService.

"Generally tornadoes are associated with thunder storms moving through... these small tornadoes are not uncommon in western areas," MetService forecaster Chris Noble said.

He said New Zealand tended to only get small tornadoes, although they could still do serious damage.

Several houses lost their roofs and had windows smashed in last night's tornado, and power poles across Opunake were knocked over.

There were also reports of damage in Rahotu and rural areas around Opunake.

Opunake resident Edna Olliver had her roof torn off while she was watching television, the Taranaki Daily News reported.

"All of a sudden there was this roar and then everything just went ... it only lasted five, or no more than 10 seconds but it was really scary, it really was."

Earlier in the night police warned motorists to take extra care driving in coastal Taranaki and on the Rimutaka Hill road, between Wellington and Wairarapa, because of high winds and heavy rain.

The MetService had issued a severe weather warning for Marlborough, Wairarapa, Tararua District and Hawke's Bay, with a cold front, bringing heavy rain on the West Coast and severe gales in Canterbury and Otago, expected to move over the southern and central North Island early today.

A severe weather watch was also issued for Fiordland, the Westland Ranges, and Otago and Canterbury.

Heavy rain was expected on the West Coast tonight and on Thursday morning, with spillover into the Otago and Canterbury headwaters, the MetService said.

- NZPA