New Zealand has been hit by a weekend of extreme weather, with landslides and flooding in the South Island cutting off towns and trapping tourists, and forecasters warning the North Island of tornadoes.
The Met Service said central and western areas in the North Island could expect severe thunderstorms on Sunday, with downpours of 25mm to 40mm an hour, large hail and possible ‘“small tornadoes”.
It warned: “Rainfall of this intensity can cause surface and/or flash flooding, especially about low-lying areas such as streams, rivers or narrow valleys, and may also lead to slips.”
More than 300,000 lightning strikes hit the country and its surrounding waters on Sunday alone, reported research organisation NIWA.
The South Island has already been hit by storms, with a state of emergency declared in the east and tens of thousands losing access to phone networks and internet.
Up to 1,000 people have become cut off in the town of Franz Josef by a landslide, with Westland mayor Bruce Smith warning the local roads to the tourist spot may not be passable until Friday. Food and water deliveries were being arranged for stranded residents, Smith told the New Zealand Herald.
Several major highways were closed due to landslips and flooding, and in Timaru a state of emergency was declared due to flooding, after the Rangitata river burst its banks. Tourists and hikers have been trapped in the town, forcing some to bed down in their cars.
On Saturday night, “a large number” of customers of the country’s largest telecommunications provider, Spark, lost phone, internet and mobile access “due to flooding and slips across the South Island affecting our network”.
Spark said its technicians were unable to repair the network for more than 12 hours, “do to road closures as a result of extreme weather conditions”, but most networks were repaired by lunchtime on Sunday, although the company warned the lines were now “vulnerable” and connectivity could be lost again.
“[The outage] affected 163 cell sites which service all landline, mobile and broadband customers south of Ashburton. This was a significant outage affecting a large number of customers” a spokeswoman for Spark said.
On the west coast, major sections of state highway six were closed, due to landslips and flooding, affecting tourists in the popular hubs of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Milk tankers were unable to get out, and power was cut to dozens of remote farms, as well as to Fox Glacier.
Tourists and freedom campers have also been stranded in the small town of Whataroa, which is completely cut off. Madeleine Dennehy owns the Whataroa campground and was looking after several freedom campers and tourists who had close calls when the river rose within a matter of minutes.
“There are flooding signs there but people don’t understand what happens to our rivers here, that they just go nuts,” Dennehy told RNZ.
Now the extreme weather event is heading north, with severe thunderstorm warnings issued for Wellington and the Kapiti coasts, with the Met Service saying rainfalls of 20mm to 30mm an hour could occur, as could floods, hailstorms and significant lighting events.
More than 100,000 lightning strikes have been recorded in New Zealand in the 24 hours to Saturday lunchtime.
Power outages are already rolling in Porirura, and significant flooding had occurred in the Hutt valley and outskirts of the capital.