New Zealand's north island is about to be hit by its worst storm in 50 years

Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

It’s time to batten down the hatches. Cyclone Cook is on its way, and it’s set to be the worst storm in nearly 50 years, with Coromandel residents being asked to evacuate, schools shut, and even Auckland’s harbour bridge at risk of being closed.

Heavy rain and high winds forecast for a big swath of the country had seen the Ministry of Education call for 98 schools and 130 early childhood education centres to be closed from 1pm.

It’s been warned that Auckland Harbour Bridge could close if the wind is strong enough.

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) earlier told motorists it may have to shut the Auckland harbour bridge if wind speeds get too high – however that was now looking unlikely.

Air New Zealand warned of disruption on its network from Thursday afternoon.

In the Coromandel Peninsula people living in low-lying areas were being asked to leave their homes before the storm hit.

University students would have the day off with Auckland University, Massey University and Auckland’s Unitec deciding to close for the day due to the weather conditions.

The low was tracking a little bit further east than earlier predicted, and it was reasonably unlikely that Auckland would see gusts of wind reaching 120 to 140kmh as forecast, Dyson said.

Eastern parts of Auckland – including Great Barrier Island and the Hauraki Gulf – could still see a lot stronger winds, but Auckland city and south it should be a lot lighter, he said.

Coromandel isolation, evacuations

Residents in the seaside town of Whiritoa in the Coromandel may have to fend for themselves for up to seven days if cut off during the storm.

There was a high risk road access to Whiritoa would be cut off in the wake of Cyclone Cook.

Hauraki District Civil Defence Controller Steve Fabish said the community was cut off by slips for a number of days following the Tasman Tempest last month and there was a strong likelihood this could happen again, considering the way the storm was tracking.

Unlike surrounding low-lying Eastern Coromandel coastal areas currently being evacuated, the threat of severe tidal inundation in Whiritoa was low.

“At this stage the storm is expected to hit the Coromandel Peninsula from 3pm until midnight. Our advice to travellers is stay away from the area until late Friday or Saturday at least,” Fabish said.

Across the other side of the base of the peninsula, there was a high likelihood the water supply to the Kaimanawa community, near Hikutaia would be affected and/or cut off during the coming storm.

Residents were reminded the community’s permanent boil water notice was still in place. Drinking water woulds be available from a tanker, but residents were advised to stock up on supplies as well, just in case.

Thames District Council Civil Defence controller Garry Towler said all available council staff, along with urban and rural fire authorities are going door to door along low lying coastal areas prone to flooding to assess the risk.

“If there are people there we are asking them to self-evacuate, we are not dictating that they self evacuate but we are asking for them to do that.

“At noon we will reassess and that will give us a picture of how many vulnerable situations we have on the peninsula.”

“Anybody who feels unsafe where they are can go to a Civil Defence Centre.”

The Defence Force has arrived in the Coromandel with four Unimogs which would be sent to the most at risk areas.

Towler said many people had left the peninsula to stay with family and friends elsewhere.

Civil Defence had directed 50 motor caravans to leave the peninsula.

“Whangamata has been hammered by two recent storms causing flooding in residential areas, so that will be a focus.”

Mercury Bay and Whitianga had coastal issues causing residential flooding, he said.

Lauren Hayes, Red Cross communications adviser, was at Whakatane’s War Memorial Hall, which may be opened as an evacuation centre later on Thursday.

Preparations were also underway for a second evacuation centre at Whakatane’s Awakeri Events Centre, and a third in Tauranga.

She said Red Cross teams from Whanganui, Hamilton, Wairarapa and Kapiti, plus gear, were pre-positioned in Whakatane and Tauranga in case of evacuations.

They were working closely with Civil Defence.

Despite what Edgecumbe residents had been through in the past week, Hayes said locals were “all rallying together to support each other”.

“I think they are hanging in there but we’ll see what the night brings.

Huge swells picked

Five metre swells are expected across the Bay of Plenty coast.

Tauranga City Council was advising people to stay away from beaches and coachlines due to storm surges and water inundation, along with coastal erosion.

A strong wind warning was also in place for Thursday afternoon.

Severe gales with gusts of 150kmh or more were possible. Coastal areas could expect large waves of five metres or more during this time, with storm surges and possible i​nundation and coastal erosion.

Civil Defence: Put safety first

Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black said the Government was taking Cyclone Cook very seriously, and people needed to change their Easter travel plans if necessary.

“Put safety first no matter what – don’t take any chances.”

Stuart-Black said anyone who saw rising flood waters should not wait for an official warning to move, as flash floods could happen quickly.

Stuart-Black said Bay of Plenty communities that had already experienced flooding or isolation were expected to face similar conditions.

In Waikato, water levels were close to maximum levels in a number of waterways, which could bring debris and floodwater into bulk water mains and impact Hamilton’s drinking water.

The Defence Force had already pre-deployed some staff into the Bay of Plenty following last week’s flooding, and had staff on standby in all their camps across the country.

“They’re ready to move, so they’re on a notice to move. We’ve got that surge capacity right there on the spot, but because of the lack of certainty about where the weather may impact, what we’re wanting to do is make sure we’ve got the flexibility to move them where they’re most required.”

Police and fire services had also “surged” their staff in the last few days, including pre-positioning staff in smaller communities like Opotiki which could end up isolated following the cyclone.

Dundein flooding fears abate

Flooding fears for Dunedin have receded with less rain falling than originally forecast.

MetService had lifted the heavy rain warning for Dunedin, North Otago and Clutha, with rain expected to ease from about noon on Thursday.

The Dunedin Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) would still monitor conditions as more rain was expected on Friday.

About 56 millimetres of rain fell in the city in the 24 hours to 9am on Thursday – much less than was originally forecast.

Dunedin City Council Civil Defence controller Sandy Graham said the rainfall had not caused any significant problems, but the EOC would continue operating with scaled-back staffing.

The situation was expected to be reviewed on Thursday afternoon.

“More rain is predicted, but it is well within the range that our systems and operational teams can cope with. At this stage, there is no need for residents to be worried, but if they do have any weather-related concerns they should contact us on (03) 477 4000,” Graham said.

Bridge closure could spark traffic chaos

Auckland Bridge. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

With winds forecast to hit severe gale strength in Auckland, NZTA was warning motorists to plan ahead for the possible closure of the city’s harbour bridge – an unprecedented step.

“Closing the bridge is not a decision we will take lightly because it will have a significant impact on traffic flows throughout the city, however our first priority is safety and that’s what will determine any closure,” Auckland Highway Manager Brett Gliddon said.

“If the bridge is closed to traffic this will have a flow-on effect across the rest of the motorway and local road network, so motorists should expect long delays, and avoid travelling if they don’t need to.”

Drivers were advised to use alternative routes to and from the North Shore via State Highways 16 and 18 – the northwestern and upper harbour motorways.

NZTA spokesman Chris Young said the agency had contractors on standby to fix any issues on the roading network, and was prepared to close major arterial routes if necessary.

“We have plans in place, an escalation procedure in place, we’re monitoring the network all the time with the MetService, and if we need to close any major bits of infrastructure, we will do so in the interests of being safe.”

Young said drivers should check weather and road conditions before they travelled as they could change rapidly.

“Consider delaying your journey if at all possible, so only travel if you really think you need to, particularly to areas we think will be severely impacted.”

Anyone on the roads should allow extra time for their journey and be prepared for challenging conditions, including debris and possible detours or road closures.

This article first appeared on See the original article here.

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