Powerful aftershocks plague New Zealand city

A powerful 5.1-magnitude aftershock struck New Zealand's earthquake-stricken city of Christchurch today.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND // A powerful 5.1-magnitude aftershock struck New Zealand's earthquake-stricken city of Christchurch today, as officials doubled their estimate for repairing the damage from nearly 300 aftershocks in five days. The latest quake, just 6.4 kilometres below the earth's surface and centered 10kms southeast of the city, was felt by residents as the strongest aftershock in Christchurch since Saturday's 7.1 magnitude earthquake wrecked hundreds of buildings. Nobody was reported injured by the latest aftershock.

"My guts are just churning up here. When will this thing end? It is like living in a maelstrom," the Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said as workers streamed from the city's emergency headquarters. "We have got staff in tears ... power is out and a lot of people are very, very churned up by that," he told the NewstalkZB radio station. "We were starting to think maybe, just maybe, we are over the worst of this, and now we have had this shocking event," Mr Parker said. "This is a hammer blow to the spirit of a lot of people."

After his second, closer look at the quake carnage today, the New Zealand prime minister John Key said he thought that rebuilding the city would cost more than the initial estimates of NZ$2 billion (Dh5.3bn), with at least 500 buildings already condemned and about 100,000 of the area's 160,000 house damaged. Treasury Secretary John Whitehead said later the full bill for quake damage could reach NZ$4bn, with the nation's Earthquake Commission likely to pay half of that.

Civil defence director John Hamilton said the safety status of some buildings would be reassessed after today's quake, though Christchurch had suffered no "significant" new damage. The city's main road tunnel, closed while cracks were inspected following the aftershock, was reopened after it was deemed structurally sound, he said. GNS Science reported that more than 280 aftershocks of magnitude 3.0 or greater have struck the region in the five days since the destructive 7.1 earthquake early on Saturday.

Seismologist Brian Ferris said people would have felt about 150 of those quakes. Earthquake experts warned that another strong aftershock, up to magnitude-6.1, could hammer the region in coming days. "With an earthquake of magnitude-7.1, like this one, the rule of thumb is you could get aftershocks as large as one unit lower - so magnitude-6.1," seismologist John Townend of Victoria University in the capital, Wellington, said today.

Saturday's powerful earthquake smashed buildings and homes, wrecked roads and disrupted the central city, though nobody was killed and only two people were seriously injured - which authorities attributed to good building codes and the quake's early morning timing. The city centre remained cordoned off by troops today, as authorities extended a state of civil emergency for another seven days. Only building owners and workers are allowed into the central city to begin clearing up the mess - with much of the centre taking on the mantle of a ghost town.

Today, the prime minister traveled north of the city to inspect houses in the town of Kaiapoi that had been torn from their foundations by the quake. "It shows you how well the building code works in New Zealand as they had been picked up, ripped apart and yet the structure has survived enough that people could escape," Mr Key said after looking through one wrecked house. "There are (citizens) who are really struggling under the weight of these earthquakes, both emotionally and in terms of their prized possessions," particularly homes, he told reporters.

Mr Key has called off a planned nine-day trip to Britain and France, citing what he called the quake zone's continuing "instability." * AP