News Australasia

Sunday 4 December 2016

Two killed as a powerful quake rocks New Zealand

Thousands flee homes for higher ground amid tsunami warnings

Nick Perry in Wellington

Published 14/11/2016 | 02:30

People wait in Te Aro Park in Wellington after being evacuated from nearby buildings following the earthquake. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
People wait in Te Aro Park in Wellington after being evacuated from nearby buildings following the earthquake. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

A powerful earthquake struck New Zealand's South Island yesterday, killing at least two people, causing damage to buildings and infrastructure, and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes amid fears of a tsunami.

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The 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck just after midnight local time in a mostly rural area that is dotted with small towns. Near the epicentre, it opened up snaking fissures in roads and triggered landslides.

Products shaken from the shelves in a pharmacy. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Products shaken from the shelves in a pharmacy. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It caused damage in Wellington, the capital, more than 200km to the north and was also strongly felt in the city of Christchurch to the south.

Residents said the shaking went on for about three minutes, and was followed by a number of strong aftershocks.

The quake struck near the coastal town of Cheviot and was about 14km deep; the largest aftershock had a magnitude of 6.2.

Jane Thompson, from the Canterbury region, said it was a "long, rolling earthquake".

"It feels a little different," a South Island resident said. "The house felt jellylike. It was not long and sustained like other ones."

Tired

Police said one person died in the small coastal town of Kaikoura and another in Mt Lyford, a nearby ski resort.

The quake completely cut off road access to Kaikoura, said resident Terry Thompson, who added that electricity and most phones were also down in the town of 2,000, a popular destination for tourists taking part in whale-watching expeditions.

Guests of the Amora Hotel wrap themselves in blankets. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Guests of the Amora Hotel wrap themselves in blankets. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Mr Thompson was out of town but managed to reach his wife by phone during the night.

His wife helped a 93-year-old neighbour and a tourist into her car and drove to higher ground, he said. "They stayed in the car all night but couldn't sleep," Mr Thompson said. "They're all very, very tired and concerned about the state of their property."

Speaking after the quake struck, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key said he was unable to give further information on the fatalities until authorities had confirmed all the details. He said officials had no reason to believe the death toll would rise.

"On the very best information we have at the moment, we think it's only likely to be two. But of course there are isolated parts of the country which we don't have perfect eyes on, so we can't be 100pc sure," he said.

Debris from a shop front in the capital. AFP/Getty Images
Debris from a shop front in the capital. AFP/Getty Images

"It was the most significant shock I can remember in Wellington," Mr Key told reporters from the parliament's underground defence bunker. "There will be major costs around roads and infrastructure."

Mr Key said officials had decided not to declare a national emergency because the nation's regions were able to adequately cope with the situation.

He said waves of about two metres had hit the coast but the tsunami threat had since been downgraded to coastal warnings.

The quake temporarily knocked out New Zealand's emergency call number, 111, police reported.

In Wellington, it collapsed a ferry loading ramp, broke windows and caused items to fall from shelves. It also forced hundreds of tourists on to the streets as hotels were evacuated.

People evacuated from buildings along Dixon Street check their mobile phones. (Ross Setford/SNPA via AP)
People evacuated from buildings along Dixon Street check their mobile phones. (Ross Setford/SNPA via AP)

Authorities in Wellington were urging people who work in the centre of the city to stay home today. City officials said that some large buildings were showing signs of structural stress. The city's suburban rail network was shut while crews checked tracks, bridges and tunnels.

The quake brought back memories of the magnitude-6.3 earthquake that struck Christchurch in 2011, destroying much of the downtown area and killing 185 people.

That quake was one of New Zealand's worst disasters, causing an estimated $25bn (€16bn) in damage.

A large fissure runs along Kaikoura Road about two hours north of Christchurch. (AP Photo / Joe Morgan)
A large fissure runs along Kaikoura Road about two hours north of Christchurch. (AP Photo / Joe Morgan)

Although yesterday's quake was stronger, its epicentre was much farther from any major urban areas. Location, depth and other factors beyond magnitude all contribute to the destructive power of an earthquake.

New Zealand's Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management reported that a tsunami wave struck at about 1.50am and warned residents living in low-lying areas anywhere along the country's east coast to move to higher ground.

The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said it did not expect the quake to generate a destructive Pacific-wide tsunami.

Within New Zealand, there was confusion about the tsunami threat throughout the morning. The ministry initially said there was no threat but later wrote on Twitter "situation has changed - tsunami is possible" before reporting that a tsunami had hit.

When the quake hit, Hannah Gin had just sat down in her living room to watch a replay of the national rugby team's weekend match against Italy when her house started shaking. Upstairs, her mother let out a scream.

Ms Gin, a 24-year-old lifelong Christchurch resident, is accustomed to quakes, so she said she sat calmly and waited, figuring the rumbling would stop in a few seconds.

Belongings lie on the floor after being knocked over during the quake. REUTERS/Sharon Fisher
Belongings lie on the floor after being knocked over during the quake. REUTERS/Sharon Fisher

Instead, she said by telephone, the shaking just went on and on - for at least three minutes, according to the clock on her phone.

The quake was far less violent than the one that struck Christchurch in 2011, Ms Gin said, adding that there was no jarring up and down or side to side, just a long, rolling sensation. But it went on for much longer than the typical quakes that strike the area, she said. She was less concerned about running for cover than she was about vomiting from the motion sickness, she said.

"I could hear the sliding door sliding back and forth, and we've got washing hanging up and I could see the washing moving," Ms Gin said. "It just kept going and going."

She said that her house, which was damaged in the 2011 quake, did not appear to have sustained any new damage.

She also said she had heard from many of her friends who live in the city, and all were safe. "As far as I know, everyone's fine," she said. "We're all just really shaken."

In Wellington, 214km north of the quake's epicentre, power was knocked out in some places, and some windows were smashed and some chimneys collapsed.

Firefighters attend a callout. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Firefighters attend a callout. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The quake was centred 93km north-east of Christchurch, according to the US Geological Survey.

The USGS initially estimated that the earthquake had a magnitude of 7.4 before revising it to 7.8.

It said the quake struck at a depth of 23km, after initially putting the depth at 10km. Earthquakes tend to be more strongly felt on the surface when they are shallow.

New Zealand, with a population of 4.7 million, sits on the 'Ring of Fire', an arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes are common.

In Wellington, where frequent aftershocks continued to be felt hours after the first quake, residents heading for higher ground caused gridlock on the roads to Mount Victoria, a hill with a lookout over the low-lying coastal city.

"I'm just sort of parked by the side of the road and I think people are trying to go to sleep the same as I am," Wellington resident Howard Warner said after evacuating his seaside house.

Pictures shared on social media showed buckled roads, smashed glass and goods toppled from shelves in shops in Wellington and the upper South Island.

"The whole house rolled like a serpent and some things smashed, the power went out," a woman, who gave her name as Elizabeth, told Radio New Zealand from her home in Takaka, near the top of the South Island.

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