Major storm mop-up gets under way

STAFF REPORTERS
Last updated 22:51 21/06/2013
SEAN WILLIS/Fairfax NZ

Wellington's South Coast has been hit by incoming swells as strong winds lash the capital.

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A falling tree took out a power pole and lines, blocking Warwick St in the Wellington suburb of Wilton.

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About 2000 homes in the Wellington region are still without power tonight and some in rural areas may be that way for the next few days.


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Wellington Electricity spokesman Drew Douglas said power had been restored to most of the 30,000 homes that were cut off when a massive storm with winds gusting up to 200km/h damaged buildings and knocked over trees in Wellington last night.

But about 2000 homes were still in the dark late this evening, he said. Homes in the Wellington suburbs of Miramar, Newlands and Johnsonville were affected along with parts of Ohariu Valley and Makara just outside the city.

Some homes in Porirua and the surrounding areas of Titahi Bay, Plimmerton and Mana were also affected, as was Whitemans Valley, Kingsley Heights and Days Bay in the Hutt Valley, and Wainuiomata.

"The scale of the event may mean that some customers in our more remote rural areas will be without full power for a few days."

Power company crews were working rapidly, under appalling conditions, to restore service, he said.

Meanwhile, insurance claims have spiked after record breaking winds, rain and snow battered New Zealand over the last 24 hours.

Tower Insurance said it had received more than 150 claims from people in the Wellington region alone after an Antarctic low ripped through the city last night.

"Claims ranged from roofs being blown off homes, to trees on rooftops, damage to fences and flooded carpets," Tracey Palmer said.

State Insurance and AMI have also received several hundred claims and calls for assistance today.

Insurers expected the number of claims to rise over the next three or four days as customers who dealt with the initial impact of the storms were able to spend more time at the weekend assessing the extent of the damage.

Spokesman Craig Dowling said the majority of claims for the South Island were due to flooding, roof leaks, wind damage and some snow damage around spouting and roofing.

"In Wellington, there was a lot of wind damage to roofing and resultant water damage. There’s also been damage to fencing and some reports of trees falling and damaging properties.

"We’ve also heard from some people with damage to outside items such as garden furniture and trampolines."

He said it was a significant weather event that had "hit the region and our customers hard".

Extra claims staff and assessors from the insurance companies would be available for the next few days.

LENGTHY CLEAN UP

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Meanwhile, officials have warned it could take weeks to clean up the damage from the storm in Wellington.

Wellington region Civil Defence controller Bruce Pepperell said councils were working hard to get things back to normal after last night's devastating winds.

"I know that big efforts are under way to get power back on to more than 25,000 customers around the region and that work to restore the rail commuter network is also under way," Pepperell said.

Contractors were clearing fallen trees from roads across the region. Middleton Road in Johnsonville and the road access to Makara were considered priorities.

"Our problem is that some very big trees have come down overnight and they will take a lot of work to remove."

Pepperell said work had also started on a cleanup of the seaside roads on Wellington's south coast - particularly the Esplanade, between Island Bay and Owhiro Bay, which was severely damaged by huge waves.

Wellington City Council acting Civil Defence controller Neville Brown says he expected that stretch of road to be closed for at least another 24 hours. Full repairs could take some weeks, he said.

WAHINE STORM-BEATING WINDS

Wind speeds during Wellington's wicked overnight storm topped those recorded in the infamous 1968 Wahine storm.

The storm that rolled up the country yesterday - blanketing parts of the South Island in near-record levels of snow - smashed the lower North Island overnight and this morning. Emergency operation centres in Christchurch and Auckland were diverted to deal with Wellington's woes.

At its peak, winds gusting up to 200kmh damaged buildings and tore trees from the ground. Roofs were lifted from homes, including those in Kingston's Priscilla Cres, which was hit by a massive landslip two weeks ago.

Lashing rain caused surface flooding and, at times, up to 30,000 residents were without power. Conditions were so treacherous that some council and power companies stopped their workers from carrying out repairs. 

Wellington's 200kmh gusts on Mt Kaukau last night did not set a New Zealand record, based on Niwa statistics, though they just topped the gales recorded in the Wahine storm - exceeding those as reported in the New Zealand Almanac by a mere 2kmh. The '68 storm led to the sinking of the interisland ferry Wahine and the loss of 51 lives. 

The strongest winds to hit the North Island were recorded at Hawkins Hill in Wellington, with 248kmh on both November 6, 1959, and July 4, 1962. Mt John in Canterbury holds the New Zealand record, with 250kmh on April 18, 1970.

SPORT POSTPONEMENT

Tonight's NBL game between the Wellington Saints and Waitakere Rangers has been postponed because of the extreme weather conditions sweeping the country.

The game was scheduled to tip off at 7pm at TSB Bank Arena, but the Rangers were unable to fly from Auckland to Wellington today.

NBL league administrator Tara Hakiwai said the game would now be played on Tuesday at the same venue.

Tickets for tonight's game will be valid on Tuesday while Ticketek was also offering refunds.

POLITICAL RESPONSE

Civil Defence Minister Nikki Kaye has also warned that mopping up after the storm will take time.

"Emergency services, civil defence staff and council crews have worked extremely hard in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to restore services.

"I appreciate their hard work and commitment to the impacted communities. But the extent of the damage in many areas is such that it might take some time for normal services to be resumed."

The extreme weather that had caused disruption over much of the country may not be completely over yet, Kaye said.

"No states of emergency have been declared anywhere in the country at this stage but people should heed advice from local authorities and civil defence emergency management groups.

"Those without services will need patience and support from neighbours."

Kaye hoped to visit some of the worst affected storm areas over the next couple of days.

FORECAST

MetService forecaster Sarah Garlick said the storm was an extreme event but Wellington had seen a steady drop in winds since about 1am and they would continue to drop.

The city had 31.8mm of rain between 5pm yesterday and 7.30am today, and is expecting further showers today.

Temperatures dropped to 6.1 degrees Celsius early yesterday evening, but warmed slightly to 8C overnight. MetService is expecting temperatures to reach a maximum of 10C in Wellington today.

DRAMA CONTINUED

This morning, the weather continued to play havoc with transport links around the Wellington region, with train, ferry, air and bus travel all hit. Dozens of mainly primary schools closed for the day. Power remained out for more than 20,000 households.

The rail line between Petone and Wellington closed - so train services between the Hutt Valley and Wellington were cancelled until further notice. The line between Waikanae and Paekakariki also closed, with signal problems likely to cause delays between Porirua and Wellington. The Johnsonville line reopened about midday, with an hourly schedule.

All school bus routes were cancelled this morning, a NZ Bus spokeswoman said. And delays on commuter buses were expected all day.

All ferries and flights to and from Wellington were cancelled this morning, with flights resuming shortly before noon. 

All highways in the region were open - but conditions were still marginal and extreme care would be needed by motorists. Many smaller roads remain closed by slips, fallen trees and other debris.

WELLINGTON'S SOUTH COAST

Wellington's south coast was one of the areas hardest hit by the overnight storm. Resident Karen Brodie said The Esplanade had been "trashed".

"It's like a bomb's gone off. I've never seen anything like it," she said.

"The road has been completely ripped up.

"Debris, including logs, seaweed, sand and a ripped up bench seat were on the road," she said.

She even found a dead fish washed on the road this morning.

The wind last night was "hideous" Ms Brodie said. "It even moved my car over on an angle."

EMERGENCY SERVICES

The Fire Service received 932 emergency calls for help in the lower North Island in the 12 hours to 6am, with reports of "trees down, flooding,  fences blown away, roofs lifting," central communications shift manager Belinda Beets said.

South Wellington was the hardest hit area.

Acting Inspector Bruce Mackay at the police central communications said a major problem overnight had been swells hitting the waterfront, pushing stones from the railway on to the motorway. The motorway was closed for several hours overnight while the stones were swept up.

Mackay said that despite the severe weather few road crashes had been reported.

"I think most people did stay home. We're still saying, 'be very careful'."

STORM CASUALTIES

A Hutt Hospital spokeswoman said six people went to its emergency department last night. Five had been knocked over in the wind, and one had tripped over a coffee table in the dark. All had minor injuries so were treated and discharged.

Power was out to two administration buildings at Hutt Hospital this morning, but medical services were not affected.

A Wellington Hospital spokeswoman said it had not received any storm related casualties.

FERRY DRAMA

KiwiRail senior communications advisor Sophie Lee said the 180-metre long ferry Kaitaki snapped its three moorings one by one, from 7pm yesterday.

About 45 people were on board.

The boat's engines were started after the first line broke, so the ferry was able to get out into Wellington harbour with the help of two tugs. It was currently sitting in a sheltered part of Wellington Harbour, off Point Jerningham, she said.

A ferry link stand on the wharf may have been damaged, and would need to be inspected.

It was planned to bring the Kaikati back in to dock when the winds eased later today.

SOUTH ISLAND

The South Island remains in the grip of one of its worst snowstorms in more than 30 years - and there is still more to come.

The polar storm's final fling could cuff Christchurch and coastal Canterbury tomorrow morning in a repeat of that experienced today.

Computer models are picking a large area of active shower clouds will spin around the back of the low-pressure centre east of the South Island and flick another period of snow onshore.

That looks most likely to happen between about 6am and noon tomorrow.

Once that clears, wintry showers are predicted throughout tomorrow afternoon, but to a large extent the worst of the three-day storm will then be over.

In the past 48 hours, Christchurch received over half its expected rainfall for June.

Thirty millimetres of rain, sleet and snow had fallen in Christchurch since noon on Wednesday, MetService data show, and the city's average rainfall for June was usually about 56mm.

Darfield had over 54 mm, Methven 49.6mm, Le Bons Bay 33.4mm and Ashburton 66mm.

Kaikoura recorded 47mm, but no data had been received from the weather station since 7pm yesterday, so it was likely to be considerably higher, a MetService spokesman said.

The highest rainfall for June was recorded in 1995, when the city had 183mm of rain.

Most of the West Coast cut off overnight but the situation was easing today.

All three mountain passes across the Southern Alps to the West Coast were closed but the Lewis and Haast passes had reopened this morning while snow kept Arthurs Pass closed.

State Highway 1 between Kaikoura and Blenheim was also closed last night as violent winds brought down trees and roads were flooded.

Marlborough District Council civil defence spokesman Mark Wheeler said police had been able to provide safe passage to people trapped on the highway.

AUCKLAND

Lightning strikes sent a Norfolk pine crashing through a house and smashed windows in several others around Auckland last night.

The storm wreaked havoc across Auckland between 9pm and 10pm, damaging at least 12 Stanmore Bay homes north of Auckland and several in Pt England.

A man was treated by ambulance staff onsite after a Norfolk pine fell on to his house in the east Auckland suburb.

"There was a large area of debris, some nearby houses had to be evacuated and a house kit was used to cover the roof," fire northern communications shift manager Colin Underdown said.

Further north 12 houses lost power and one patient was taken to hospital with chest pains after lightning struck.

- Stuff

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