3 dead and 1 missing as rain hits New Zealand’s biggest city

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Authorities said on Saturday three people had died and at least one was missing after record rainfall hit New Zealand’s largest city, causing widespread disruption.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins traveled to Auckland on a military plane after a state of emergency was declared in the region.

«Our priority is to ensure that the people of Auckland are safe, housed and have access to the essential services they need,» Hipkins said.

He said the city was going to do a big clean-up and people should stay indoors if possible. He said a break in the weather could prove temporary, with more rain forecast.

«This is an unprecedented event in recent memory,» Hipkins said.

Friday was the wettest day on record in Auckland, according to weather agencies, as the amount of rain that would typically fall throughout the summer hit in a single day. On Friday evening, more than 15 centimeters (6 inches) of rain fell in just three hours in some places.

The rain closed highways and poured into homes. Hundreds of people were stranded at Auckland Airport overnight after the airport halted all flights and parts of the terminal were flooded.

Police said they found the body of a man in a flooded culvert and another in a flooded parking lot. They said one person was missing after being swept away by floodwaters while another was missing after a landslide destroyed a house in the suburb of Remuera.

Hipkins later said three people were confirmed dead while at least one remained missing. He said power had been restored to most places, although around 3,500 homes were left without power.

Video posted online showed chest-deep water in some places.

Lawmaker Ricardo Menéndez released a video showing water invading homes. «We just had to evacuate our house as the water was already rising fast and coming in aggressively,» he tweeted.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand said crews responded to more than 700 incidents in the area and staff took more than 2,000 emergency calls.

“We had every career and volunteer crew available on the road to respond to the most serious events,” District Manager Brad Mosby said.

Mosby said crews rescued 126 people who were trapped in homes or cars, or were involved in vehicle crashes.

Air New Zealand said it resumed domestic flights to and from Auckland on Saturday afternoon, but was not yet sure when international flights would resume.

«The floods had a huge impact on our operations in Auckland,» said David Morgan, the airline’s operational integrity and safety manager. “We are working to get customers to their final destinations and to get our crew and planes back to the right place. It might take a few days to get everything back on track.

In a series of Twitter updates, Auckland Airport said people could leave the airport early on Saturday to fly home or stay after hundreds had spent the night in the terminal.

“It has been a long and difficult night at Auckland Airport, we thank everyone for the continued patience,” the airport wrote.

«Unfortunately, due to previous flooding in the baggage hall, we are currently unable to return checked baggage to you,» the airport wrote. «Your airline will make arrangements for his return later.»

The storm also caused the cancellation of an Elton John concert just before it was due to start on Friday night. A second concert by John which was scheduled at the stadium on Saturday evening has also been cancelled.

About 40,000 people were expected to attend each concert at Mt Smart Stadium. Thousands of people were already there on Friday night when organizers decided to cancel shortly before John took the stage at 7.30pm.

Many spectators who had braved the conditions were frustrated that the decision had not been made hours earlier.

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown defended criticism that his office failed to communicate the seriousness of the situation well and delayed the declaration of an emergency until around 9.30pm on Friday.

He said the timing of the emergency declaration was guided by experts.

«We’re going to go through everything that happened,» Brown said. «We have to make sure that we have had the coordination and consultation with the public, correct.»

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