• Tue. May 16th, 2023

Body found in cave after search for missing teen in New Zealand floods

Rescue workers searching for a student missing in flooded caves in New Zealand have recovered a body overnight as torrential rain lashes the North Island and authorities declare a state of emergency.

New Zealand Police reported a high school student was missing at the Abbey Caves near Whangārei, about 175km north of Auckland, after a group of 15 students and two adults got into difficulty on Tuesday morning.

Police expected the search to conclude at 5pm, local time, on Tuesday but the arrival of specialist equipment from Auckland allowed the mission to continue late into the evening.

“This helped enable searchers to locate a body, which was successfully recovered late yesterday evening,” NZ Police Superintendent Tony Hill said on Wednesday morning.

“As such, the search has now concluded.”

While the body is yet to be formally identified and scene examinations continue, Mr Hill said “the family is being offered support, and our thoughts remain with them at this tragic time”.

“We acknowledge this event has been very distressing for the school and wider community, and that there are a number of questions the public will have,” he said.

“At the moment, police’s focus is on supporting those affected, and we remind people to please not make assumptions as to what has occurred.”

The group of year 11 students from Whangārei Boys High School (WBHS) were reportedly caving as part of an outdoor education class when they “encountered a severe weather event”.

WBHS Principal Karen Gilbert-Smith shared news of the “hugely upsetting” incident to the school’s Facebook page on Tuesday morning.

“As a school we are focusing on supporting all whānau (family), staff and students concerned with this event, and the wider school community, with assistance from iwi (the tribe, community) and agencies,” she wrote.

“In time we will seek to understand how this situation occurred, but for now I ask that we stay united as a WBHS community and provide support where required.

“My thoughts and aroha (sympathies) are with all concerned, especially the whānau of the young person who is missing.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told parliament on Tuesday he was seeking more information on what happened to the student, but shared his “deep concern” and “absolute support for the school community”.

Meanwhile, a woman saying she was the missing boy’s aunt took to social media to ask for “prayers” for her nephew.

According to the Whangārei District Council’s website, the Abbey Caves are prone to flash flooding and visitors are warned to check the weather forecast before setting out.

The region, and much of New Zealand’s North Island, has been soaked by heavy rains from thunderstorms since Tuesday morning, prompting the national weather service to issue a red warning – saved for the most destructive weather events.

A state of emergency was declared in Auckland on Tuesday afternoon, where schools were evacuated, and swollen rivers began to flood roads, homes, and businesses in the city and cancelled many ferry and train services.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand said it received more than 300 weather-related calls for help on Tuesday – 286 of those were from Auckland and about 100 were classed as urgent.

Many were for floodwaters entering buildings, but they had also responded to landslides, falling trees and trapped cars.

The northern regions were still recovering from devastating floods in January – which killed four people – and widespread damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle in February – which killed at least 11 people.

MetService meteorologist Georgina Griffiths said the region was still “so saturated” after the disasters months ago. She said Auckland has received “90 per cent of its annual normal rainfall in the first third of the year”.

New Zealand Treasury estimates the January and February weather events cost between $NZ9 billion ($A8.4 billion) and $NZ14.5 billion ($A13.6 billion).

Mr Hipkins implored people in Auckland to keep safe through the “serious situation”.

“We will get through this. We will support Auckland through it,” he told reporters, Associated Press reports.

“We know that it’s tough coming on top of everything else that they’ve been dealing with, but right now my request to people is just to keep yourself safe.”

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