West Coast braces for Cyclone Gita

Buller and Grey districts have both declared a state of emergency as the West Coast heads into lockdown this afternoon as ex-tropical Cyclone Gita bares down.

The remnants of the storm that battered Samoa, Tonga and southern Fiji  was expected to make landfall across the country later this afternoon and tonight, bringing powerful swells of up to 7m, torrential rain, rapidly rising streams and rivers, slips, flooding and severe gale-force winds.

West Coast mayors met with civil defence twice this morning, but delayed declaring a state of emergency as they waited to see the latest projections and potential impact.

Later however, the New Zealand Civil Defence tweeted that Buller had declared a state of emergency for the district at about 4pm.

Police and defence force personnel are spending the last few hours of daylight are patrolling the coast road north of Greymouth to stop any campervan they find still travelling the State Highway.

Gita’s winds have blown over a campervan at Nine Mile Beach, injuring the occupants who have been taken to hospital.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn says it’s too dangerous for such vehicles to be on the road and they must remain stationery for the night.

The road between Westport and Greymouth has already been closed and Tony Kokshoorn has declared a state of emergency in the Grey District. He says the worst of the river is expected from now through til around one in the morning.

Schools from Karamea to Haast were closed today and tomorrow.

The first rain and winds of the cyclone landed on cue at midday, with the stormy weather expected to last until about midnight.

Civil defence were most concerned about the forecast gale-force south-easterly winds that could gust up to 150kph.

Almost all of central Greymouth was open this morning, apart from the BNZ and the Bonzai cafe, and shoppers were still around oblivious to the approaching storm.

The Tranz Alpine tourist train was cancelled today and tomorrow affecting about 1400 passengers, while Air New Zealand cancelled all flights into Hokitika.

The Greymouth iSITE became a social agency this morning as staff tried to find accommodation for 300 tourists stranded by the cancelled train. Another 300 will be stuck tomorrow when they turn up to catch the train back to Christchurch.

iSITE manager Gina Ashworth said Greymouth was pretty full but due to the weather, hotels and motels were receiving cancellations, so that was helping with accommodating the stranded tourists. One staff member was dedicated to that job this morning.

Miss Ashworth said most tourists were aware of the situation, but some whose English was not as good were not. One overseas tourist wanted to camp in his tent.

She said they were showing the visitors the civil defence alerts, and letting them know the storm response was mandated by Government.

Road closures

The New Zealand Transport Agency said State Highway 6 (Westport to Greymouth) has closed this afternoon due to strong winds and surface flooding.

Recent closures since 5.30 pm today, include:

SH73 (West Coast side of Arthurs Pass/Otira to Christchurch) Jacksons to Kumara Junction – closed due to strong winds and falling trees across highway. This highway may close on the Canterbury side depending on how the wind patterns develop tonight and overnight.

SH6 Hokitika to the Haast Pass/Makarora – closed due to strong winds and falling trees. Strong winds through the Whataroa Valley, trees down.

Route 70, inland road, to Kaikoura via Waiau and Mt Lyford – closed with the Mason River rising rapidly at the Whalesback slip area. Kaikoura is effectively isolated until this road or SH1 reopens. Route 70 will be assessed first thing in the morning to see if the upper route can be opened to traffic. SH1 north and south of Kaikoura will also be updated after 10 am.

The Blaketown tiphead was closed as a precaution this morning, and the Greymouth port was closed to all shipping at 10am.

Westport harbour was also closed. Both ports are crammed with tuna fishing boats sheltering from the storm.

All schools and early childhood centres have been closed for two days.

A Ministry of Education spokesman declined to say why schools were closed tomorrow, given that the storm was expected to die out overnight, saying only it was a "dynamic situation" which they were constantly assessing.

School boards of trustees made the final decision. Even Haast, well away from the expected path of the cyclone, closed on the ministry's advice.

At Greymouth New World there was a rush of panic buying on basics all day yesterday, whereas the regular morning delivery made it in this morning with no problems.

New World owner-operator Victoria Boyes said it was "business as usual", but stressed that if things changed for the worse, customers and staff would not be put at risk.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said they were keeping a watching brief on the central business district, and were mindful of the risk of loose roofing iron flying about.

"Emergency services are on standby. The biggest concern is the wind. We are set up for an extreme event," Mr Kokshoorn said."If you have major problems, phone council."

All three West Coast councils had activated their emergency operations centres.

Civil defence said in an update just before noon: "There is potential that the weather forecasted will change over the coming hours.

Forecast rainfall amounts were reduced to between 90mm and 120mm.

The council asked people to check on neighbours and family members.

The Grey District Council closed the Runanga pool until Thursday; the Regent Theatre was also shut.

The Department of Conservation has closed the Copland Track south of Fox Glacier.

NZ Couriers warned of disruption to services.

MetService forecast:

Rain: Buller from 11am to 9pm, 70 to 100mm elsewhere. Range of Westland: from 11am today to 11am tomorrow 70 to 100mm.

Wind: Buller from 2pm today to 10pm: Severe gale easterly winds with damaging gusts of 130 to 140kph in exposed places. Westland: from noon to 11pm today, severe gale south-easterly winds with damaging gusts of 150kph possible in exposed places.

- additional reporting NZME

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