The sky was grey and damp in the morning, and that was
supposed to be about the worst of it. In Auckland, the
forecast was for "periods of rain ... clearing in the
afternoon" with "freshening" northwesterlies.
At 9am, the MetService warnings concerned "frizzy hair
syndrome" and not much else.
Then suddenly, about noon, the sky in the city's northwest
went black - and the air "electric".
"I saw it coming across the river," said Suzanne McFadden, a
resident in Whenuapai. "This was like a juggernaut roaring
through here. Everyone is really shaken up."
In an instant, the calm was shattered. The wind whistled then
roared as a tornado ripped through trees, roads, houses,
power lines, garages, cars and boats.
"It was just crazy. There were trees everywhere ... there
were windows breaking," a resident said.
A mother tried to console her young son. Then a trampoline
crashed against her window.
"I couldn't see anything - it was just... white."
The twister tore off a concrete wall and crushed three
workers at a construction site.
Debbie Booty heard a door slam then saw debris flying. Her
lounge window exploded, showering glass everywhere. She ran
into her closet.
"I shut myself in there and called my husband. I was
panicking, I was terrified," Ms Booty said.
When she emerged about five minutes later she found water
flooded through the house. The chimney was on a lean - like
many in Hobsonville, almost torn off the roof.
The tornado's beginning and end were elusive; it melded into
a thunderstorm wreaking wider destruction through Hobsonville
Waimarie Rd, Kay Cres, Wallingford Way and Stratton Pl were
among the streets blasted with wind and water. Fields and
Hobsonville resident Jeff Pilling said his trampoline had
been flung 50m. Outside his house was a scattered mess of
corrugated iron, debris and a mangled portaloo.
The damage was littered through suburbs within minutes, but
the tension continued for the next couple of hours as the
Emergency services sprang into action. The Fire Service sent
a dozen trucks into the affected areas as the frequency of
its logged incidents surged 2000 per cent. Firefighters
responded to as many as 100 calls in the first two hours.
"There are houses with roofs off scattered all over West
Auckland," said a spokesman amid the chaos.
Police assembled a makeshift headquarters at Whenuapai Air
Force Base, while ambulances sped seven injured victims to
"There might be some critical," said a St John spokesman.
Debris and fallen trees lined flooded streets as residents,
some of them in tears, assessed the damage.
Houses were crushed by trees; some completely flattened.
Power lines had been ripped out, windows smashed and trees
toppled. Entire roofs had blown away.
Several roads were closed, including State Highway 18.
Soldiers and sniffer dogs went in and out of houses searching
for anyone who might be trapped. Neighbours knocked on one
another's doors, while parents anxiously waited for news from
"We live in a little village, and you just don't expect this
kind of thing to happen," said Ms McFadden.
Authorities quickly established about 150 houses had been
seriously damaged, and 250 residents were told to evacuate to
the air force base.
MetService made no effort to explain the tornado during the
afternoon, doubting its existence till the end. Spokesman Dan
Corbett brushed such twisters off as "small things".
"We're not completely discounting it," Mr Corbett said,
though the state forecaster had seen thunderstorms on its
Meanwhile, photos streamed out from West Auckland of a
shattered cityscape darkened by blasts of wind and rain.
As power was cut to several areas, lines company Vector
issued a call that people should assume downed lines were
live and to be careful.
Auckland Airport ordered staff off its tarmac to take
shelter. At least 19 flight arrivals and 14 departures were
cancelled amid high winds.
In the disaster area, Police Superintendent Bill Searle held
a press conference at the air force base.
He confirmed there had been deaths and said about 12
uniformed Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) personnel, who
happened to be in the area at the time, were gathering
intelligence to help police. The Defence Force was on
He said a series of tornadoes had passed through Hobsonville,
and one touched down on a subdivision, causing damage to
trees and buildings.
"We'd ask that people that don't have to be in the area stay
away from the area," Mr Searle said.
"We're very keen to talk to the family members of anyone that
might be injured," he said.
"If they make themselves known to the police officers we'll
give them the necessary care and attention."
Auckland Mayor Len Brown was also there to be with Civil
"This is a real tragedy," Mr Brown said.
"Lives have been lost, people injured and property badly
damaged. Those affected and their families are in our hearts
MetService issued a severe weather warning for Auckland
during the storm, and lifted it by 3pm, marking its final
SH18 was opened in time for evening commuters, though traffic
in many areas still became backed up on motorways and wet
Dr James Renwick, Associate Professor of Physical Geography
at Victoria University, said tornadoes did strike randomly.
"Analysis of weather records does not show a pattern, nor are
there trends obvious in tornado occurrences," Dr Renwick
"These events strike at random from time to time, but they
are very localised and sporadic and are not obviously tied to
trends in the large-scale climate. At this stage, we have no
indication that tornado occurrences will become more or less
frequent in future."
Philip Duncan, of Weatherwatch.co.nz, noted how close
yesterday's tornado was to Albany, hit last year by another
"There is clearly something about the geography of northwest
Auckland that favours tornado development."
Both events had struck on relatively calm days, he said.
"But a very active and dramatic front passed through and the
instability led to this freak event."
North Shore Hospital admitted four people who were injured in
Three of them were expected to be discharged from North Shore
last night, after being treated for minor injuries including
cuts and abrasions.
A fourth female patient suffered a fractured hip
and would spend at least one night in hospital. She was in a
No details were available about the patients.
A further three people were taken by ambulance to Auckland
They were treated in the emergency department and all were in
a stable condition last night.
History of twisters
1981: A tornado rips through Rothesay Bay and Browns Bay,
causing widespread property damage.
1991: A large tornado strikes Albany, destroying a church and
killing one person.
2003: A series of mini-twisters hits Browns Bay, ripping
tiles and television aerials off roofs and knocking over
trees and fences.
May 3, 2011: A large tornado strikes Albany again, killing a
construction worker, injuring 14 and causing widespread
damage across the North Shore.
- Michael Dickison of the New Zealand Herald