Wellington in dark as storm slams capital
STACEY KIRK, MICHELLE DUFF AND MICHAEL FORBES
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Power is out to more than 30,000 homes across Wellington, all flights in and out of the city are cancelled and a ferry has broken loose from its moorings as one of the worst storms in decades batters the region.
All ferry and train services in the capital have also been cancelled tonight.
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Civil Defence emergency operation centres in Wellington, Porirua and Lower Hutt were opened late in the evening as the southerly storm got progressively worse.
Civil Defence controller Bruce Pepperell said the offices were coordinating a very large number of "relatively minor" events around the region.
"The emergency services and council contractors are flat out dealing with fallen trees, flying roofing iron and other wind-related problems,'' he said.
"We have opened to keep an overview of where the problems are and to direct resources where necessary. At the moment we are not considering any formal civil defence activation."
Many of the thousands of homes without power would likely be that way until morning, Pepperell said.
Ohariu Valley, north of Wellington, had also been cut off from the city by fallen trees, which were completely blocking Ohariu Valley Rd.
Swells of up to 10 metres had also been reported in Cook Strait, and with high tide expected at about 1am, there were concerns about possible damage to property and roads along Wellington's south coast.
The Kaitaki ferry in Wellington harbour broke its moorings, and staff were unable to bring it back into berth. An Interislander spokeswoman said the ship had been anchored in the harbour temporarily.
The ferry broke free from its moorings in a 90 knot southerly gust, or 160 kilometre an hour winds, the spokeswoman said.
Emergency services were battling horizontal rain with the highest gust of 200kmh recorded at Mount Kaukau, with about 140kmh in the city, a Metservice severe weather forecaster said.
Police said there had been a large increase in calls, many of which just related to damage and were being referred to Wellington City Council.
Inspector Ian Harris, of police central communications, said trees had come down in a number of places and a few roofs had been torn of structures.
"It's mostly trees or branches that are coming down, there is some flooding across roads and power is going out sporadically."
A spokesman for the NZ Transport Agency said fallen trees and debris were also partially blocking the northbound lanes of State Highway 2 between Ngauranga and Petone.
Harris said the slip was completely blocking one of the three southbound lanes and partially blocking another, just south of the speed camera.
Contractors were sent to clear the slip just after 7pm.
Harris said high winds were also sending waves crashing up onto the southbound motorway.
"We're advising people to just stay at home if they can and only travel if it's absolutely necessary."
Motorists were also being asked to take Hutt Rd rather than the motorway.
Wellington Electricity was advising people to stay away from fallen powerlines and check on neighbours, especially the elderly, if you thought they may be effected.
Wellington Electricity spokesman Drew Douglas said the weather had caused extensive damage, with affected areas including Titahi Bay, Trentham, Silverstream, Wingate, Wainuiomata, Miramar and Kingsley Heights.
He said work was underway to restore the power supply in Wellington, but the amount of work and weather conditions meant there would be some delays.
Areas affected include Trentham, Titahi Bay, Wingate, Wainuiomata, Miramar, Kingsley Heights, Makara, Oharu Valley, Belmont, Seaview, Petone, Newlands, Tawa, Plimmerton, Mana, Gracefield, Waterloo, Korokoro, Days Bay, Naenae and Porirua. There may also be other areas affected by local low voltage faults.
People were being asked to stay clear of any fallen powerlines and listen to a portable radio for updates.
Power has also been lost at the TSB Arena, which is hosting the Gold business awards.
They were operating off a generator.
Region-wide power outages and the threat of trees falling on rail lines had also forced all Tranz Metro train services across the region to be cancelled for the night.
Transpower chief executive Patrick Strange said a number of lines were out of service on both sides of the Cook Strait.
"Our big concern is the AC links - in the south, it would seem those ones are out due to heavy snow and wind, and obviously in Wellington they're out due to extreme wind."
Those links feed power through the Cook Strait Cable, primarily supplying the North Island with electricity.
Strange said overhead lines stretching from Benmore in Canterbury to Haywards Substation in Lower Hutt were most likely out because they were clashing together in high winds.
Those line outages however, had no effect on household power.
All back up generators for the North Island were functioning and Strange said linesmen were working to fix what they could.
"There are places in Wellington where we just can't send them right now though. It's just too dangerous."
A KiwiRail spokeswoman said there were serious safety concerns. "It's quite severe weather out there."
About 7pm, a train travelling north on the Johnsonville line struck a tree that had fallen on the tracks near Ngaio Station. It was able to double back to Crofton Downs Station to drop off passengers before returning to Wellington.
Air New Zealand said just after 7pm it had suspended all flights into and out of the capital for the rest of the night because of the high winds. It asked affected passenger to call its contact centre for further advice.
Cook Strait ferries were also cancelled, but an Interislander spokeswoman said it was hoped the 2.30pm sailing from Wellington tomorrow would go ahead, but this would depend on the weather.
Wellington resident Glen Scanlon said just after 7pm his family heard an almighty crash.
"My wife said: 'I think your bike just fell down outside'. I opened the back door and half the hillside was there.
"A tree had come down, taking out the fence, table and washing line. Luckily the tree was just resting against the house."
Wellington resident Julie Clarke tweeted a single gust blew away a trampoline, which was pegged down in her back yard, away.
MetService severe weather forecaster Heath Gullery said the potentially damaging winds were just getting started.
"Rain and severe gales are setting in, the highest recorded so far has hit 140kmh in both Kelburn and Wellington Airport."
He said severe gale warnings were unlikely to be lifted before tomorrow evening.
"This will continue throughout tonight and it won't be until tomorrow afternoon that we see it ease, although winds will still be strong."
The storm has been described as the worst to hit in 37 years, by a National Institute for Weather and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) scientist.
Principal scientist Dr Mike Revell said the storm would be "up there with the one or two worst snow events" he was aware of since becoming a meteorologist in 1976.
"This is a significant event which is expected to persist through to Friday night, with snow accumulations likely to exceed 50cm above 300 metres and more than 100cm above 500 metres," MetService said.
Earlier Thursday, schools in both the North and South Islands were forced shut, roads were closed and flights cancelled as snow and severe gales battered both inland and coastal areas.
According to MetService, the low pressure system off the coast of Kaikoura was expected to bring heavy winds overnight.
Severe Weather Warnings remained in place, and weren't expected to be changed until tomorrow evening.
Damaging gusts of 140 kmh were possible in exposed places throughout tomorrow, but could reach 150kmh through parts of Westland. Gusts of 200kmh had already been recorded in the Wellington suburb of Khandallah.
In the south, it was the rural areas of New Zealand that were the worst hit.
For inland parts of north Canterbury, it was predicted about 50cm to 100cm of snow would fall during the storm. Many places saw that fall today, although it was expected to continue into tomorrow.
Naseby in Central Otago was reportedly cut off, as was Middlemarch, which also had power outages.
Fairlie in Canterbury was also cut off and reportedly without power. Up to 60cm of snow was reported in Tekapo.
Among the major road closures was SH 85 from Omakau To Palmerston, SH 8 from Lindis Pass and SH 6 from Queenstown To Kingston.
Long-time Naseby resident Stuart Hore said the snowfall there was one of the heaviest he'd seen in his 75 years.
Snow was also reported in Methven, Darfield, Ashburton, Oxford, Darfield, Loburn and Waiau, and in Kingston and Lake Hawea in Central Otago.
In the central North Island, National Park Primary School Principal Terry Hemmingsen said 5 - 8cm of snow had already fallen on the grounds of the country's "top school" - the classrooms, at 900m above sea level, are the highest in the country.
Some of the 36 children who went to the school, up to year eight, rode home in the specially-designed four wheel drive school bus.
Hemmingsen said the forecast was for the snow to continue overnight and into Friday so it was likely the school's doors would remain closed tomorrow.
For ski resorts across the country, the heavy dumping had been a welcome sight. Cardrona Ski Resort in Wanaka was due to open tomorrow, but have pushed their opening back to Saturday so some of the snow could be cleared.
The Remarkables were also looking to open with 10com to 20cms of dry powder on top of a 75cm base. Tomorrow marks the first day of the Queenstown Winter Festival.
Heavy snow had been falling throughout the day on both the Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields, and was expected to get heavier tomorrow.
In many other parts of the North Island, it was the biting cold winds along with sleet and rain that were the most difficult to contend with.
The system was not expected to begin weakening until late tomorrow evening.