Flights to New Zealand capital grounded as former cyclone Gita hits

WELLINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Air New Zealand on Tuesday cancelled all flights in and out of New Zealand's capital, Wellington as the remnants of tropical cyclone Gita pummelled the country.

The national carrier said all flights to the capital would be grounded from 2.45 p.m. (0145 GMT) as weather authorities issued warnings of severe weather and heavy rain and gusts of up to 150 kph (93 mph).

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters at Parliament that military had been deployed to areas likely to be worst hit and the country's national Civil Defence office in Wellington was on standby to help local authorities.

"My message still to people is please look out for your local warnings and expect disruption to travel and please just be careful," she said.

Cyclone Gita hit the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Tonga last week, packing winds up to 275 kph (171 mph) and causing widespread destruction and flooding. It had earlier caused extensive damage in Samoa and American Samoa.

The cyclone had since been downgraded to a storm, but forecasters warned it was still likely to wreak havoc as it traversed the centre of New Zealand, parts of which were still reeling from a huge storm that prompted authorities to declare of states of emergency at the start of February.

More than 40 schools and preschools were closed in the upper South Island, while local mayors urged people not to leave their homes.

Transport authorities shut a stretch of highway along the east coast of the South Island and the Department of Conservation was closing picturesque seaside hiking tracks and campsites along the West Coast and ushering tourists away from low-lying areas, media said. (Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield Editing by Clarence Fernandez)