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New Zealand cyclone could cost as much as Christchurch quake

February 20, 2023

New Zealand's government has announced a new relief package to deal with Cyclone Gabrielle. Power, drinking water, and cell phone coverage is largely restored in the affected areas, but work continues on all fronts.

A car sits semi-submerged in mud from Cyclone Gabrielle, in Rissington, near Napier, New Zealand, Sunday Feb. 19, 2023.
The area around Napier was one of the worst-hit, with recovery efforts still nascent a week after the cyclone hitImage: Mike Scott/NZ Herald/AP/picture alliance

New Zealand's government on Monday announced new emergency funding for recovery efforts after Cyclone Gabrielle left at least 11 people dead on its North Island.

The finance minister said the damages could end up being similar to the approximately NZ $13 billion (roughly €7.6 billion, or US $8.1 billion) from a major 2011 earthquake. 

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins also said at a press conference that the national state of emergency would be extended for seven days to facilitate a continued and coordinated response.

"While the full impacts of the cyclone continue to be assessed, it's clear that the damage is significant and on a scale not seen in New Zealand for at least a generation," Hipkins said. 

The prime minister, who only took office a few weeks before the February 12 cyclone after his predecessor Jacinda Ardern stepped down, said that the new relief measures were just a small part of what would ultimately be a much larger response. 

"We're working on a suite of measures to support New Zealanders by building back better, building back safer, and building back smarter," Hipkins said.

Glenn family members clean up their flood-damaged house from Cyclone Gabrielle in Napier, New Zealand, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.
Almost a week after the worst of the flooding, residents were starting to try to clean up their homes in places like Napier, sometimes still without water or power from the mainsImage: Warren Buckland/Hawkes Bay Today/AP/picture alliance

Finance minister says there will be a 'multi-billion dollar price tag'

Hipkins said he was appointing Finance Minister Grant Robertson to an additional role as cyclone recovery minister.

Robertson had said in an interview with TV New Zealand that the ultimate costs incurred after the cyclone could be similar to the 2011 earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch and much of the state of Cantebury, or possibly the 2016 quake in Kaikoura.

"It's going to be the biggest weather-related event this century and it will have a multi-billion dollar price tag," Robertson said. Asked whether that meant billions or tens of billions, he said it was still too early to say for sure. 

"Cantebury was up in that sort of 13 billion area. I expect this to be near there, but it's still very early days. Clearly, that's the total cost. Some of that's absorbed by insurance. Some of that's absorbed by government agencies' existing budgets. But that's around the ballpark that we're looking at right now, in terms of the costs. But each day we discover more, each day we understand more," he said.

Power, water, cell phone coverage largely restored

Hipkins said that 6,517 people were still unaccounted for, but that authorities did know 4,260 were ok. Police were still working to reconcile the others. 

Roughly 15,000 customers were still without power on the North Island, he said, the bulk of them in the hard-hit towns of Napier and Hastings. 

An aerial photo taken on February 14, 2023 shows flooding caused by Cyclone Gabrielle in Awatoto, near the city of Napier.
Napier was inundated by flooding caused by the cyclone Image: AFP/Getty Images

In some isolated areas, work continued to restore drinking water supply. 

"Cell tower coverage is at around 95% across the affected areas. Some are on generator power, and therefore are capable of voice and text communication only," Hipkins said, adding that mobile data would be restored once mains power was restored.

Police commissioner Andrew Coster told the AM Show the number of deaths would likely rise, adding that difficulty with communications was hampering efforts to make contact with affected people.

A New Zealand naval ship, the HMNZS Cantebury was departing for Napier on Monday bringing more emergency supplies. 

msh/nm (Reuters, EFE)