Ex-Cyclone Debbie wreaks havoc in New Zealand

New Zealand Defence Force personnel load sandbags  as they prepare for floodwaters in the wake of Cyclone Debbie in Whanganui, New Zealand, April 5, 2017.   New Zealand Defence Force/Naomi James/Handout via REUTERS

US-AUSTRALIA-CYCLONE-NEWZEALAND:Ex-Cyclone Debbie wreaks havoc in New Zealand

By Jane Wardell

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Widespread flooding on Wednesday blocked roads, closed schools, diverted flights and forced hundreds of people to evacuate across New Zealand's North Island, as the tail-end of powerful Cyclone Debbie brought intense rainfall.

A week after the storm system left a trail of destruction in Australia, a state of emergency was declared in two New Zealand cities as river levels rose amid record rainfall. In Auckland, the area's biggest city, about 10,000 homes were without power.

No deaths have been reported, but authorities warned peak rainfall set to arrive late on Wednesday could bring as much as three month's worth of rain by day's end in some areas.

That spurs a threat of flash flooding in areas still recovering from a devastating earthquake in November.

"There is definitely more heavy rain to come, and a risk of thunderstorms and very strong wind gusts," MetService meteorologist Peter Little told Fairfax news. "There's even a small possibility of a tornado."

Wild weather forced the suspension of flights at Wellington Airport, diverting, delaying or cancelling a dozen scheduled planes, while Christchurch and Auckland airports also suffered some delays and cancellations.

New Zealand's mountainous terrain makes its roads susceptible to landslides and many regions are still recovering from November's 7.8-magnitude quake.

Cyclone Debbie, a category four storm, one short of the most powerful level five, pounded Australia's Queensland state last week, smashing tourist resorts, bringing down power lines, shutting down coal mines and killing six people.

In Australia the disaster zone stretched 1,000 km (600 miles) from Queensland's tropical resort islands and Gold Coast tourist strip to the farmlands of New South Wales state. About 20,000 homes were still without power on Tuesday, as flood waters continued to rise in some areas.

Authorities urged residents of Rockhampton, in central Queensland, to seek higher ground as the rising Fitzroy River approaches a peak forecast for Thursday. Australian insurers have declared the event a catastrophe, with state officials saying recovery and repairs will take months.

(Editing by Andrew Roche and Clarence Fernandez)

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