At least two people were killed and more fatalities were feared after a powerful 7.8 earthquake struck New Zealand today, while residents in coastal areas fled following tsunami warnings.
As dawn broke there was scant information from many rural villages in the South Island, which were isolated by landslips and fractured telephone communications as strong aftershocks continued for several hours.
Prime Minister John Key confirmed two people had died and said “we cannot rule out” that number will rise, nearly seven hours after the main quake.
Police were trying to reach the scene of one fatality at a remote property 150 kilometres north of Christchurch while another person died in a historic homestead which collapsed at the nearby fishing village of Kaikoura.
“At this point we are unable to give precise details of what caused those fatalities,” Key said, adding that communication problems made it difficult to get information. Helicopters were taking officials workers to the worst-affected area, he said.
“As soon as we can get a much better assessment of the actual damage then we can work out the next steps.”
Soon after the earthquake, tsunami warning sirens were activated in South Island coastal towns and along the east coast of the North Island, with police and emergency workers going door to door to evacuate seaside properties.
The ministry of civil defence, responsible for emergency management in New Zealand, initially warned of a “destructive tsunami” with waves of up to five metres (16 feet).
The first waves were measured around two metres and four hours later authorities downgraded the warning, but said risks remained.
The quake was centered 91 km (57 miles) north-northeast of Christchurch, the biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island. A 6.3 quake there in February 2011 killed 185 people and caused widespread damage.
The tremor, which was measured by New Zealand’s Geonet at magnitude 6.6, was felt throughout most of the country. Civil Defence said it was too early to assess the damage or whether there had been any injuries or deaths.
“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.
Tamsin Edensor, a mother of two in Christchurch, said the shaking lasted a “long” time.
“We were asleep and woken to the house shaking, it kept going and going and felt like it was going to build up,” she told AFP.
She said there was no sign of damage on her street and the power was still on, adding that she was worried about towns and villages closer to the epicentre.
“We’re getting aftershocks at the moment. We’re going to stock up on water supplies just in case.”
In September, a strong 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the east coast of New Zealand, generating a small tsunami, but no significant damage or injuries were reported.
New Zealand is on the boundary of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, which form part of the so-called “Ring of Fire”, and experiences up to 15,000 tremors a year.