A town on New Zealand's North Island has been evacuated amid torrential flooding. The deluge battering the country is the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie, which devastated Australia.
Using motorized dinghies and tractors, about 2,000 residents fled their town in New Zealand's northeast on Thursday, after a river burst through a concrete levee, flooding hundreds of homes and businesses.
Local authorities in the town of Edgecumbe declared a state of emergency after the levee failed amid torrential rain that meteorologists have called a once-in-500-year event.
In some homes, water was more than 1 meter (3.3 feet) deep and one nearby river had reached an all-time record height, said Tony Bonne, the mayor of the Whakatane District Council, which serves the town.
Bonne said crews had worked to reinforce the levee on the Rangitaiki River after some leaking occurred. Once they thought they had it secured, however, "she just let go," he said.
"Some people are in shock, of course, but many are accepting that this is something that's a part of nature which they have no control over," Bonne said. "Most people in these small towns rally around each other and Edgecumbe is no different."
Thrashing moves from Australia across the Tasman
The deluge currently battering the North Island is the tail-end of a storm that thrashed Australia last week. Cyclone Debbie crashed ashore in Australia's Queensland state March 28, leaving at least six people dead, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes, shutting down mines and resorts, and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
More than a meter of rain fell on parts of Queensland, and the water is still swelling river systems, causing floods in towns further south, like Rockhampton.
After pounding Australia's northeast, the category 4 storm, one level off the most powerful category 5, was downgraded to a low pressure system before it moved across the Tasman Sea.
It has dumped torrential rain on the North Island for days, causing blackouts, flooding and landslides, which have closed off scores of roads.
A town shut off and questions about storm preparation
The coastal holiday town of Kaikoura was shut off from the rest of the country for the second time in six months after mudslides closed access roads. Access to Kaikoura had already diminished last November, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake badly damaged the town, closing the main northbound highway.
In Edgecumbe, Bonne said questions would be raised over how hydroelectric dams upstream managed the Rangitaiki River's water flow before the town's levee failed.
Local Government Minister Anne Tolley said she understood that in anticipation of the high rainfall, the dams' operators did release some water. However, she didn't have the technical expertise to know if they had done enough, she said.
Authorities have set up two welfare centers where people from Edgecumbe can stay, Tolley added, but she didn't know when they would be able to return to their homes.
"The message is, it's not safe, your life could be at risk, don't go home," she said. "And that's really hard."
No deaths have been reported in New Zealand, but authorities are searching for a man reported missing in the nearby Waikato River.
"There's still a risk of loss of life," New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett said from the country's capital.
"Under no circumstances should people be looking at going back at the moment," she said. "The message must be really clear to people right now: Get out and stay out."
Andy Best, a meteorologist with the country's MetService, said although monitoring stations had recorded an amount of rain in the past two days that would typically fall over two months, the worst of the weather system had passed and the forecast for the coming days was looking much better.
"After several grim days for New Zealand, there is hope on the horizon for the upcoming weekend. High pressure should bring mild temperatures and dry conditions for most of the country," the MetService said.
mcm/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)