Cyclone Gabrielle Chase

Generally one or two extra-tropical cyclones impact New Zealand each season. I’ve chased many of them around the country over the years. Most bring rainfall and heavy winds, but widespread impacted is limited. Cyclone Gabrielle was the BIG exception and was one of the deadliest weather events to hit the country on record.

A week out, some of the long-range weather models had the storm on a collision course with New Zealand. Other models weren’t so confident. But as the days passed, the models did something that they never do. They all aligned. And it was bad news for New Zealand. The system was to pass close to the Coromandel, virtually stop and then track east, dumping 500mm+ or more of rainfall. MetService issued widespread RED warnings – the most severe warning category.

In planning for the storm chase, I had two options. The Coromandel or the East Coast. Whilst the East Coast was expecting extreme levels of rainfall, I chose the Coromandel as it was much easier to get to and also expecting 500mm+ of rainfall. The eye wall was expected to brush very close to this area also and bring damaging winds.

I left Auckland early on Saturday morning (Feb 11) and made my way to Whiritoa. High winds and big swell were already impacting this small seaside community. Waves were crashing over the sand dunes and small trees were coming down.

I headed further north, stopping at Hahei. By this time, conditions had escalated further. I captured huge waves crashing over the rocks out at sea.

Based on one last model run, I decided to base myself at Tairua and met up with good friend Geoff Mackley. As the cyclone had effectively stalled, the main impact wasn’t expected until Sunday night.

Come Sunday, the rain arrived. It was torrential and kept falling for almost 36 hours non stop. Rivers burst their banks and the area around Tairua was completely swamped with floodwater. Trees were down everywhere and people were urged to stay indoors.


As darkness fell, the situation really started to deteriorate. We found ourselves in a situation that resembled intense cyclone storm conditions normally reserved for the tropics. The wind smashed into the vehicle, rocking it violently. Rain made driving near impossible. Never had either of us experienced such intense storm conditions anywhere in NZ. Trees were coming down all around us. It really wasn’t safe to be out, but we continued filming.

Entire streets had turned into torrents of water. Houses were slipping off their foundations and down cliffs. We had no power, no cell phone coverage and were completely cut off from the world.

As the sun came up, it had become clear we would be stuck in Tairua for some time. Flood waters had cut off all roads in and out. Trees were down all over. Houses had been damaged. Cars has been abandoned. The only information we had was through the radio. It appeared the cyclone had hammered much of the North Island.

There wasn’t much we could do, so hung around Tairua for another day. The next day, we planned an escape route, navigating broken roads, land slides and fallen trees to make it out to Waihi.

Once back into network coverage, we found that the Hawkes Bay had been severely impacted, so immediately headed south to investigate.

The damage in the Hawke’s Bay was colossal. Slash from forestry had taken out countless bridges and rivers of mud had swamped hundreds of homes. Abandoned cars, buried in mud were littered all over the place. It was like entering an apocalypse. Thousands of people had to be evacuated. Eight people lost their lives.


Cyclone Gabrielle proved to be one of the deadliest storms in New Zealand’s history. Air pressure was recorded at 968 hPa at Whitianga in the Coromandel Peninsula – the second lowest value observed in the North Island since 1960. The cleanup and rebuild efforts will take many years.


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