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The final toll was three dead, seven hospitalised and hundreds displaced and terrified.
The tornado struck Auckland about 12.15pm today, ripping roofs from houses, toppling trees and sending debris flying.
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It was followed three hours later by a second, smaller, tornado near Rotorua.
Civil Defence said those killed and injured in Auckland were believed to have been at the Hobsonville Point school construction site or hit by falling trees. Hawkins Construction has confirmed that those killed were working on the site.
Plumber Sam Nuttall told Radio New Zealand he saw two construction workers crushed by large concrete panels at the site where a high school is being built. One person was stuck between a truck and a panel and the other was underneath a panel.
About 50 people had been at the construction site, he said.
The seven people taken to hospital after the tornado were reported to have suffered moderate and minor injuries.
Hawkins Construction’s executive general manager Dan Ashby said the company's immediate focus was on supporting the affected workers' families and its staff and sub-contractors on site. The company was assisting police and other services, Radio New Zealand reported.
A Department of Labour spokeswoman said the department were not involved as it appeared to be an ‘‘act of God''.
Auckland’s mayor met with the family of one of the dead construction workers tonight, saying it was an “extremely difficult” situation.
“We’ve got mum and dad, brother and sister, sons and daughters, all struggling to deal with it,” Brown said.
“There’s no words that can describe that. The best way is to reflect that it it’s an act of God. Just one of those indescribable things.”
Brown earlier spent the afternoon touring the worst-hit area in Hobsonville, where scores were now homeless. He described the street as a “bomb site” where trees had “fallen like matchsticks.”
‘‘Like a knife through butter some of those trees. The powerful tornado and clearly a big size, devastating, very big and old trees uprooted. Clearly a major weather event.''
Brown said it was devastating for the small community.
“Aucklanders have got to open their homes and their hearts to them now,” he said.
“Lives have been lost, people injured and property badly damaged. Those affected and their families are in our hearts and minds.”
He said west Auckland was a proud area and the community would rally to support each other.
Around 80 families were tonight in a hastily prepared refugee centre at Whenuapai Airforce base. They were among 250 forced out of homes with roofs ripped off and damaged so badly they could not spend the night there.
Every house in Wallingford Way, a street lined with Defence Force state housing, was damaged in some form.
The majority of those displaced were Defence Force staff.
Auckland Council Civil Defence and the NZ Defence Force set up a welfare facility at the Whenuapai Air Base.
The base mess facilities were also used yesterday to feed emergency support agencies.
‘‘We have a number of defence personnel who are occupants of houses that have been damaged near the Whenuapi air base, they have been relocated to the base where they are being treated,'' said Kevin McEvoy, the base's Groups Captain.
A reconciliation process has been set up at the base, which reunites any dispersed families and ensures they have accommodation for the evening.
While just 80 families retreated to the airforce base Captain McEvoy said he was anticipating that more would come.
Others have taken shelter with friends or family.
Rochelle Good’s home had its carport crushed by a fallen tree and the power is out. She could have stayed on, but admitted she was too shaken.
She and her three children left to stay with her parents elsewhere in Auckland.
The suburbs of Henderson, Greenhithe and Riverhead were still without power tonight.
CALVES SEEN FLYING THROUGH THE AIR
Calves were sent flying, horses were hurt, and schoolchildren were left stranded at a remote riding school near Rotorua after a tornado tore through the area.
Wendy Branch, who manages a riding school known as The Farmhouse, said she saw calves being tossed in the air near Hamurana, about 20 kilometres northwest of Rotorua.
At the riding school, in Sunnex Rd, a trampoline was blown through the wall of the house where she and her husband live, causing extensive damage and a large hole in the roof. Some of the 80 horses they care for sustained injuries, she said.
Volunteer firefighter Mike Lepper said two or three horses were understood to have been struck by lightning, and a vet was assessing whether they would have to be put down.
About 40 children and 13 adults were left stranded in the riding school's main building for several hours after a 45-metre-high gum tree was blown over, completely blocking Sunnex Rd.
The tree brought down power lines, cutting power to the street and several other rural areas south of Rotorua. About 200 homes in total were affected.
Mr Lepper said the children, who were on a school camp from Mokoia Intermediate in Rotorua, were out riding when the tornado hit about 3.20pm and had to be taken back to the safety of the riding school.
No one was harmed, he said. "All the children were wet and cold, but we got them all dressed and warm, and they've had a hot feed up there as well."
Sunnex Rd resident Anne Bannan the tornado was terrifying. "I've never seen anything like it ... I just stayed inside. There was nothing you could do.
"There was no way you'd venture out in it – you would have got blown away."
There was water running "like a river" across the properties, she said.
FLIGHTS DELAYED, CANCELLED
Flight delays are expected to continue tomorrow as airlines work through a backlog of cancelled flights due to today's storms.
Auckland International Airport, just after 3pm, warned "severe weather experienced in Auckland ... has caused some disruption to air travel, particularly to some regional New Zealand destinations.
Earlier this evening at least seven domestic flights were cancelled.
Mainly domestic flights are affected, Auckland International spokesman Richard Llewellyn said.
Air New Zealand is warning passengers to check the arrivals and departures information on its website for the most up to date schedule information.
"The situation is constantly changing. Our staff are working hard to recover the situation, however, we have delays across our domestic and international networks this evening and the flow on effect of today’s extreme weather disruption is likely to flow into tomorrow morning," Air NZ communications manager Marie Hosking said.
Power was lost to many parts of Auckland, including Henderson, Greenhithe, Hobsonville, Riverhead, Meadowbank and St Johns.
The New Zealand Transport Agency said State Highway 18, the upper harbour motorway, had reopened after being closed between Brigham Creek Rd and Greenhithe Rd due to debris on the road.
Kamaiah Gera, 7, was at school at Hobsonville Primary - next to the construction site where three people were killed - when the tornado hit.
"We had to just sit down and do drawing or colouring until it was over," she said. "It made lots of noise and we got scared."
When the children went outside, Kamaiah said the water was as deep as their ankles. "It looked all watery. When my friend put her feet in it came up to [her calf] because she is so small."
Parents said they struggled to get hold of the school to confirm if the children were all right. By the time Kamaiah's mum, Jo Clarke, picked her up there were dozens of parents at the school in a panic.
Toni Hayward, administrator at the Open Wananga Office in Hobsonville, saw the tornado rip through the area.
"It came right through here and picked stuff up an threw it on the road."
"The sky went all dark and there was a big clap of thunder, all the trees were flattened."
Hobsonville RSA cook Deborah Carlson said she was trapped in her car during the storm, too terrified to go outside.
"I was just sitting there because it was pouring with rain and I thought I'd wait it out. But then my car starting shaking and there were things flying everywhere. I thought it was going to flip, I was terrified."
Carlson said she didn't know what to do, so called her boyfriend.
"I was in there by myself for about 15 minutes. The bins were flying past and the gates were swinging open, it was horrible."
She said when she finally left the car, the scene was a mess: "There's debris everywhere."
Casey Davenport, who lives in Hobsonville, was at work when the weather started to turn.
"Then it just came down, and it looked like mini tornadoes - the rain was just like being swished around a lot."
"Then somebody gave me a call and said that somebody's house from work had been taken out and I was like 'oh God'. Not fun."
Fallen or uprooted trees and pieces of debris were blocking the road to her house, which she said now is "leaking like a sieve".
"We're missing tiles, broken windows ... it's full of water now because it's leaking. But we're one of the better ones I think."
Brendan Muir, who is working at Hobsonville Point, said he was sitting in a ute when the tornado hit.
"It was just mayhem. I had to put my seat belt on, I thought it was going to flip."
Muir said that, around him, he could see trees "that looked like a plane had crashed into them", walls and fences knocked down and Portaloos scattered about.
He said for about 10 minutes there were so many sirens sounding it "seemed like 9/11".
Despite threats of another tornado on the way, Muir said he was back pouring concrete.
Frances Schuster said the tornado only lasted 12 seconds but was terrifying.
"It went blurry for a while, it just happened so fast. It was really loud and the windows were shaking."
Part of a roof fell on to her car.
PM, SHEARER RESPOND
Prime Minister John Key took a moment to reflect on today's events before speaking at the commissioning of an upgrade of the North Island Power Grid at Pakuranga substation this afternoon.
"It can only be described as a freak act of nature. It is a very sad day for Auckland," he said.
Labour Leader David Shearer said his heart went out to the families and friends of those who were killed.
"It is deeply shocking to lose loved ones in such a sudden and tragic way.
"Our thoughts are also with those who have been injured. We wish them a speedy recovery.
"We also thank the emergency services who are working hard under difficult circumstances to ensure people's safety and to provide relief."
In May, last year, a tornado in Albany, on Auckland's North Shore resulted in the death of construction worker Benedict Dacayan.
The 37-year-old North Shore resident worked for Fletcher Building and was part of a team of 15 helping to demolish the old Placemakers building in Albany when the tornado lifted him into the air and threw him into a concrete wall.
The tornado caused extensive damage to sectors of Westfield, Pak 'n' Save and other commercial locations and tossed cars in the air.
In September, last year, more than a dozen houses were damaged by a tornado that ripped through several streets in the West Auckland suburbs of Avondale and Te Atatu South.
In September 2009, another tornado tore the roof off a house in Ramarama, South Auckland and in July 2008, four homes were damaged by a twister in Glendowie. A person was injured in July 2007 when a tornado tore roof tiles in Botany.
- © Fairfax NZ News