At least two killed in powerful New Zealand earthquake

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

A motorway sign pictured in Wellington on November 14, 2016, following the quake. Ross Setford/SNPA via AP
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WELLINGTON // At least two people were killed in a powerful earthquake that struck New Zealand early on Monday, sparking tsunami warnings.

“We don’t have any indications at the moment to believe [the death toll] will rise, but we can’t rule that out,” said the country’s prime minister, John Key, adding that details of the casualties were still being confirmed.

The 7.8 magnitude quake struck just after midnight in a mostly rural area close to the city of Christchurch on the South Island, but appeared to be more strongly felt in Wellington, the capital, more than 200 kilometres to the north. Residents said the shaking went on for about three minutes, and was followed by a number of strong aftershocks.

The quake temporarily knocked out New Zealand’s emergency call number, police reported. Near the epicentre, it opened up snaking fissures in roads and triggered landslides. In Wellington, it collapsed a ferry loading ramp, broke windows and caused items to fall from shelves. It also forced hundreds of tourists onto the streets as hotels were evacuated.

Authorities in Wellington were urging people who work in the city centre to stay home on Monday. City officials said that some large buildings were showing signs of structural stress, and that the quake would likely have caused a mess in some buildings. 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 US$25 billion (Dh91.8bn) in damage.

Although Monday’s quake was stronger, its epicentre was much farther from any major urban areas. Location, depth and other factors beyond magnitude all contribute to how destructive an earthquake can be.

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.

Information from the pacific tsunami warning centre indicated that the tsunami waves could be highest around the South Island town of Kaikoura, at about 1.5 metres. The Hawaii-based centre said it did not expect the quake to generate a destructive Pacific-wide tsunami.

As the quake hit, Christchurch resident Hannah Gin, 24, 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, who has lived in Christchurch all her life, is accustomed to quakes, so she said she sat calmly and waited, figuring the rumbling would stop in a few seconds. Instead, the shaking just went on and on – for at least three minutes, according to the clock on her phone.

Ms Gin’s house, which was damaged in the 2011 quake, did not appear to have sustained any new damage from Monday’s quake, she said, adding that she had heard from many of her friends who live in the city, and all were safe.

New Zealand sits on the “Ring of Fire”, an arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes are common.

* Reuters, Associated Press