WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A cyclone that left a devastating wake of extensive flooding and landslides in New Zealand has claimed at least four lives and police have “grave concerns” for other residents who remain unaccounted for, the prime minister said on Wednesday.
Cyclone Gabrielle struck the country’s north on Monday and has brought more destruction to this nation of 5 million than any weather event in decades.
Police said at least four people had been confirmed killed by the storm, including a child caught in rising water on Tuesday at Eskdale on Hawke’s Bay. All four fatalities occurred near the same North Island east coast bay, two in landslides and two by drowning.
A weather station in the Hawke’s Bay region recorded three times more rain over Monday night than usually falls for the entire month of February, authorities said.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said it was unclear how many people remained unaccounted for, with several communities still isolated by floodwaters, landslides and telecommunications outages.
Police said 1,442 people had been reported uncontactable in the North Island as of Wednesday afternoon.
“We expect the vast majority of these people will be accounted for. However, there are several people missing for whom police do hold grave concerns,” Hipkins told reporters.
Hipkins said he could not put a figure on how many missing person reports were of grave concern.
He said 1,111 people had been reported found by Wednesday, which would cancel out some of those reported uncontactable. Around 9,000 people have been forced from their homes since Monday.
More than 300 people were rescued Tuesday from the Hawke’s Bay area, including 60 stranded on a single roof, an official said. The final 25 rescues of individuals and family groups were expected to be completed on Wednesday.
Hipkins said seven rescues had yet to be completed by late Wednesday. He did not say how many people had yet to be retrieved, but said none was in danger.
“The feedback that we’ve had is that those seven that are still outstanding, all of the people concerned are safe,” Hipkins said.
“The people who were on rooftops and precarious positions have been rescued,” he added.
Along with rescues, the government was prioritizing restoring power and telecommunications as well as delivering food, water and medicine to where it was needed, Hipkins said.
A naval ship left Auckland late Wednesday with drinking water for Hawke’s Bay communities and another ship would follow with vital supplies on Thursday.
A helicopter would drop bottled water for 3,000 people on Wednesday night.
Emergency responders planned to hold a barbecue for 3,000 people on Wednesday night at the Hawke’s Bay town of Wairoa.
“They’ll keep cooking into the night until either they run out of people to feed or they run out of food,” Hipkins said.
Water treatment equipment would also be delivered to Wairoa on Thursday, he said.
Around 160,000 properties on the North Island were without power on Wednesday, down from 225,000 on Tuesday, the government said.
British King Charles III’s sister Princess Anne visited New Zealand’s disaster management headquarters in the capital, Wellington, on Wednesday and praised the nation’s response. Her visit to New Zealand was scheduled before the cyclone struck.
“My thoughts are with all New Zealanders whose homes or livelihoods have been affected by Cyclone Gabrielle,” she said in a statement.
“I admire the courage of the people of Aotearoa during this alarming and difficult time,” she said, using the country’s Māori-language name.
“You should all be proud of the resilience, strength and care for your communities you are showing in the face of adversity,” she added.
Auckland was swamped two weeks ago by a record-breaking storm that also killed four people.
A national emergency was declared Tuesday, enabling the government to support affected regions and provide additional resources. It is only the third national emergency ever declared.