New Zealand’s prime minister says Cyclone Gabrielle, which has ripped through much of the North Island, is a weather event not seen “in a generation”.
The Chris Hipkins government has declared a state of emergency – only the third in New Zealand’s history.
About a third of the country’s population of five million people live in the affected areas.
Many people have been displaced and some had to swim from their homes to safety after rivers burst their banks.
Others were rescued from the roof.
About a quarter of a million people are without power. Houses have been destroyed by falling trees, and landslides have carried away people and blocked roads.
Coastal communities on the north and east coast of the North Island suffered the most damage from the storm – with areas such as Hawke’s Bay, Coromandel and Northland among the worst hit.
Communication to one town in the region has been completely cut off after a river burst its banks.
Civil defense authorities in Hawke’s Bay said they were unable to cope with the scale of the damage. Australia and the UK have pledged to help.
A firefighter is still missing after being trapped in a landslide in Muriwai, west of Auckland. The second firefighter involved was critically injured, rescue agencies said.
Marcelle Smith, whose family lives in a cliff-front property in Parua Bay on the east coast of the North Island, told the BBC she fled inland with her two young children on Monday night.
Her husband stayed behind to set up defenses for their home. Some embankments that had been set up had already been washed away and were still battling wild weather on Tuesday.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to protect what we’ve put into our lives. It’s man against nature at this point,” she told the BBC.
Local media have reported that some residents in Hawke’s Bay had to swim through bedroom windows to escape when their homes were flooded. People have been warned they could be without power for weeks.
Aerial pictures of flooded regions showed people stranded on rooftops waiting to be rescued.
The large scale of the damage includes uprooted trees, bent street lights and poles, and flooded houses.
The New Zealand Defense Forces have released dramatic pictures of officers rescuing a stranded sailor, whose yacht was swept out to sea when its anchor cable fell in strong winds.
“The severity and damage we’re seeing hasn’t happened in a generation,” Mr Hipkins said on Tuesday.
“We are still building a picture of the effects of the cyclone as it continues. But we know the impact is significant and widespread.”
He pledged NZ$11.5m (£6m; US$7.3m) in aid to support those affected by the disaster.
Declaring the state of national emergency on Tuesday morning, Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty described the storm as “unprecedented”.
The emergency order enables the government to streamline its response to the disaster. It has been implemented in the Northland, Auckland, Tairawhiti, Tararua, Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Hawke’s Bay regions.
New Zealand has only declared a state of national emergency twice before – during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
The government has attributed the scale of the disaster to climate change.
“Strictly, of course, [is] made even worse by the fact that our global temperature has already risen by 1.1 degrees,” said Climate Change Minister James Shaw.
“We must not make excuses for inaction. We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooded. We must act now.”
Cyclone Gabrielle has hit New Zealand just two weeks after unprecedented watersheds and floods in the same region, which killed four people.
The MetService says conditions are expected to clear over the next few days, with heavy rain warnings being raised in parts of the country. But he has warned that the wind could still cause further damage.