The safety status of thousands of people remains unknown more than a week after Cyclone Gabrielle, a tropical storm that New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins labelled the nation’s biggest natural disaster this century, struck the country’s North Island on Feb. 12. At least 11 people have died.
New Zealand Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told local media on Monday morning they had managed to make contact with 4,000 of the 6,500 people previously reported out of contact after the cyclone hit.
“The gap is closing,” said Coster, noting that most of those currently out of contact were unreachable due to difficulties with communications. At least 28,000 homes were still without power as of Sunday, and although Coster said on Monday that communications in hard hit areas have since improved, disrupted telecommunications and damaged roads continue to hamper the recovery effort. Fresh water is also in short supply in some areas.
Gabrielle first made landfall in the North Island’s northernmost region eight days ago before moving southward down the east coast, battering most of the island—including New Zealand’s busiest city Auckland— with severe winds, landslides, and heavy rains that washed away bridges, farms, and livestock. Dozens of homes were inundated and thousands of people have been displaced.
While the death toll sits at 11, Hipkins has said “more fatalities remain possible.”
“The true extent of the devastation and loss become clearer with every passing day,” he added.
On Feb. 14, the devastation prompted New Zealand to declare a national state of emergency for only the third time in its history. The two previous declarations were in 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the unfolding public health crisis, and in 2011, after an earthquake ravaged the country’s second-largest city Christchurch and killed 185 people.
“Cyclone Gabrielle is the most significant weather event New Zealand has seen in this century,” Hipkins said on Tuesday. “The severity and the damage that we are seeing has not been experienced in a generation.”
More than 950 members of the New Zealand Defence Force have been involved in the disaster response, according to military officials, while dozens of Australian emergency responders are supporting fire and emergency crews on the ground.
Some political parties, meanwhile, are calling for the armed forces to take control of the streets of Hawke’s Bay on the North Island, one of the hardest hit areas, following reports of violence and looting.
The prime minister ultimately reserves the power to bring in the military to assist police in extreme circumstances. Senior politicians, including leader of the right-wing ACT Party, David Seymour, and leader of the nationalist NZ First party, Winston Peters, are urging him to do so.
“The Prime Minister needs to approve sending Army personnel to assist police to maintain order—it is a state of emergency and is out of control,” said Peters, according to the New Zealand Herald.
“The first responsibility of any government is to ensure people’s safety and security—the people of the Hawke’s Bay shouldn’t have to put up with guns being pointed at road workers, or people being threatened and robbed for food and petrol.”
Gabrielle came just two weeks after intense flooding hit Auckland—a disaster that was similarly labelled a “once in a century” event. The scale and devastation of the cyclone prompted the nation’s Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw, to launch a furious speech in parliament on Feb. 14 lamenting “the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not”.
“We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooding,” he added. “We must act now.”
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