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2 dead, 2 missing as rain pounds New Zealand's biggest city

Emergency workers and a man wade through flood waters in Auckland, New Zealand, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. Torrential rain and wild weather in Auckland causes disruptions throughout the city and an Elton John concert to be canceled just before it was due to start. (Hayden Woodward/New Zealand Herald via AP)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Police said Saturday that two people had died and two more were missing as torrential rain and flooding continued to cause widespread disruption to New Zealand’s largest city.

Authorities declared a state of emergency for the Auckland region and the nation’s new Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, flew to the city on a military plane to assess the damage. Hipkins was sworn in to the top job on Wednesday after Jacinda Ardern resigned.

Hipkins said the rain had hit the city fast. “Aucklanders need to brace for the fact there could be more rain,” he said.

Earlier, hundreds of people were stranded at Auckland Airport overnight after the airport stopped all flights and parts of the terminal were flooded.

Police said they found one man’s body Friday evening in a flooded culvert and another man’s body early Saturday in a flooded carpark, and they were continuing to investigate both deaths.

Police said a third man had been reported missing after being swept away by floodwaters while a fourth person remained unaccounted for after a landslide brought down a house in the suburb of Remuera.

Video posted online showed chest-deep water in some places.

Lawmaker Ricardo Menéndez posted a video of water surging into houses. “We’ve just had to evacuate our home as the water was already rising rapidly and coming in aggressively,” he tweeted.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand said crews had responded to more than 700 incidents across the region and staff had taken more than 2,000 emergency calls.

“We had every available career and volunteer crew on the road responding to the most serious events,” said district manager Brad Mosby.

Mosby said crews had rescued 126 people who were trapped in houses or cars, or who had been involved in vehicle crashes.

Air New Zealand said it resumed domestic flights in and out of Auckland on Saturday afternoon, but wasn’t yet sure when international flights would resume.

“The flooding has had a huge impact our Auckland operations,” said David Morgan, the airline’s chief operational integrity and safety officer. “We’re working on getting customers to their final destinations and getting our crew and aircraft back in the right place. It might take a few days to get everything back on track.”

In a series of updates on Twitter, Auckland Airport said people were able to leave the airport early Saturday for their homes or accommodation after hundreds spent the night in the terminal.

“It’s been a long and challenging night at Auckland Airport, we thank everyone for ongoing patience,” the airport wrote.

“Unfortunately, due to earlier flooding in the baggage hall, we are currently unable to return checked luggage to you,” the airport wrote. “Your airline will make arrangements for its return at a later time.”

The airport on Friday said it was reducing its runway operations after an arriving aircraft had damaged runway lighting.

The storm also caused an Elton John concert to be canceled just before it was due to start Friday night. A second concert by John that was planned at the stadium on Saturday night was also canceled.

About 40,000 people were expected to attend each concert at Mt Smart Stadium. Thousands were already at the venue Friday night when organizers decided to cancel not long before John was due to take the stage at 7:30 p.m.

The concert was billed as a final farewell tour for John. Frontier Touring, one of the concert promoters, tweeted the concert had been canceled due to unsafe weather conditions.

Many concertgoers who had braved the conditions were frustrated the decision hadn’t been made hours earlier.

Weather agency MetService warned of flash flooding and hazardous driving conditions. On Friday night, transport authorities closed parts of State Highway 1, the main highway that bisects Auckland.

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown told Radio New Zealand, “We need the rain to stop. That’s the main issue.”