Flooded roads in Whangarei as Cyclone Gabrielle hits
Cars move through flooded roads in the NZ city of Whangarei as Cyclone Gabrielle hits.

Cyclone Gabrielle death toll claim a wild exaggeration

AAP FactCheck March 9, 2023

Hundreds of people died in New Zealand following Cyclone Gabrielle.


False. The death toll stands at 11 with all persons now accounted for.

Cyclone Gabrielle has become a major source of misinformation with claims hundreds of residents of New Zealand’s North Island died in the aftermath.

Rumours spread rapidly on social media in the days after, with many posts linking to an anonymous claim published on the Daily Telegraph New Zealand website that a helicopter pilot allegedly saw “hundreds of bodies”.

The story is headlined, “‘I’ve seen hundreds dead’ – rescue helicopter pilot”, and has been shared on Facebook repeatedly – see here, here, and here.

“The news media is lying about the death toll, stating only 11 so far. All while rescue helicopter crews see hundreds of dead bodies floating in the still raging waters. Thousands of people remain unaccounted for,” wrote one Facebook user in sharing the article.

Posts relating to the February 20 article continue to be shared while other similar posts have appeared in recent days – see here, here, here and here.

A screenshot of the Facebook post
 The article featured in many of the post was published by the Daily Telegraph New Zealand. 

At the time of writing, the official death toll from Cyclone Gabrielle, one of the biggest storms in New Zealand’s history, is 11 people. Police and local government officials from affected regions told AAP FactCheck the claims that hundreds are dead are false.

All 6000 people who were reported missing just after the February 13 cyclone are now accounted for, police said on March 7.

The Daily Telegraph New Zealand (DTNZ) story, published without a byline on February 20, claims the pilot who had been working in Hawke’s Bay spoke to a “contact” of the website and requested anonymity.

“I’ve seen hundreds of dead bodies,” the DTNZ quotes the source.

“He told our contact the rivers and flooded areas were ‘littered with bodies floating in the water’ and that these were New Zealand’s ‘darkest days,” the article claims.

The DTNZ, established in late 2021, has no link to the Australian and British newspapers with that name.

It has previously been accused of spreading misinformation and has a 15/100 credibility rating from NewsGuard, which declared the website “unreliable because it severely violates basic journalistic standards.”

Other similar unsubstantiated claims about the cyclone’s toll have been made on social media, as reported by NZ news site Stuff. 

Of the 11 confirmed fatalities, nine of them were in the Hawke’s Bay, Napier and Gisborne region on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, which was hit particularly hard. 

A landslip near a house in Auckland caused by Cyclone Gabrielle
 A landslip near a house in Auckland caused by Cyclone Gabrielle 

New Zealand Police told AAP FactCheck that the claims of hundreds dead were false.

“The number of people recorded by police as uncontactable following Cyclone Gabrielle is now officially at zero,” police said in a statement. “Those are people who, following the event, were reported as uncontactable by loved ones through a police online form set up for that purpose.”

Immediately after the cyclone, hundreds were reported uncontactable by police but as the recovery began those numbers were accounted for, police said.

“In the days following the cyclone, many communication channels were unavailable, and power outages were widespread, which meant a large number of people were temporarily out of contact.

“Police have maintained a strong presence in affected communities and we have no evidence to suggest there are large numbers of people who remain unaccounted for.”

Hawke’s Bay Rescue Helicopter Trust conducted extensive operations in the region following the cyclone.

“We have no reason to dispute the official death toll as notified by NZ Police,” its general manager, Ian Wilmot said in an email.

Flooding in northern New Zealand due to the cyclone.
 One of the many scenes of devastation captured from the air. 

Napier City Council Mayor Kirsten Wise told AAP FactCheck authorities had now reached all areas of the region and that she had no reason to question information provided by the police.

Napier Deputy Mayor Annette Brosnan agreed, telling AAP FactCheck via email: “I have no reason to doubt the official figures (death toll and number of missing) provided by the police.”

A representative from Hastings District Council in Hawke’s Bay also said there is no reason to doubt the official figures.

A single person, Joseph Ahuriri of Gisborne, has been missing since February 13 but has not officially been declared a victim of the cyclone.

The Verdict

The claim hundreds of people died in New Zealand following Cyclone Gabrielle is false.

New Zealand Police told AAP FactCheck the death toll stands at 11 with all other persons now accounted for.

Local government officials and rescue services in the worst hit areas said there was no reason to doubt the official figures.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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