SYDNEY (Reuters) – The death toll from Cyclone Gabrielle in New Zealand increased to nine on Saturday as officials continued to search for missing persons and clean up the North Island.
On Sunday, the storm struck the northernmost portion of the North Island and travelled down the east coast, wreaking catastrophic destruction.
Authorities said on Saturday that they were investigating a probable cyclone-related fatality in the hard-hit Hawke’s Bay area, bringing the total number of fatalities to nine.
Priority was also placed on delivering relief to affected towns, with the Navy announcing that a ship carrying 26 tonnes of supplies was its route to Napier, Hawke’s Bay.
The Air Force said that food and water-laden helicopters were on route to the trapped community of Tutira, 105 kilometres (65 miles) to the north.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said that the response to the disaster was ongoing and that people throughout the North Island were working nonstop.
Hipkins has described Gabrielle as the most catastrophic natural catastrophe to strike New Zealand in the 21st century and has warned that the death toll is expected to climb when workers make contact with hundreds of isolated villages.
As of Friday night, over 5,000 individuals had registered with police as having lost contact with friends or family since the storm struck, while 885 people had registered as safe.
There were major concerns regarding perhaps 10 of those still missing.
Officials said that around 62,000 houses countrywide were without electricity. Of of them, about 40,000 were in Hawke’s Bay, a region with a population of around 170,000.
The New Zealand Herald reported that about 2,000 people remained in evacuation shelters in Hawke’s Bay, while up to 1,000 individuals in the area were out of reach of emergency services.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us. We are concentrating on providing a stable water supply, re-establishing phone and internet connections, and reaching people in remote areas “Ben Green, group controller for Civil Defense in Tairawhiti Gisborne, north of Hawkes Bay, said as much.