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Christchurch's Tallest Building Teeters; City Braces for Quake Aftershocks

Christchurch residents are bracing for more aftershocks threatening to topple buildings already weakened by New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake in 80 years as the search for survivors enters a second full day.

The South Island city, New Zealand’s second largest, has been jolted by 38 aftershocks since Tuesday’s 6.3-magnitude temblor that killed at least 71 people, according to the Civil Defense Department website. While searches resumed overnight in the remains of the Canterbury Television building after safety concerns forced workers to suspend efforts, survivors aren’t expected on that site, police said. The city’s tallest building, the Grand Chancellor Hotel, is unstable and may be moving.

“The rate of aftershock activity will decrease over the coming weeks but the magnitudes of the earthquakes don’t,” John Townend, associate professor of earth sciences at Wellington’s Victoria University, said in a telephone interview. “It’s going to be a question of many weeks and could be several months.”

Seventy-one victims have been confirmed and that number is expected to rise, according to Civil Defense. Hospital emergency departments in the Christchurch region have admitted 430 people, with seven in intensive care, Civil Defense spokesperson Iain Maclean said in a phone interview today.

Digging Through Wreckage

Rescuers are digging through wreckage, and have progressed through about 60 percent of the central business district, Jim Stuart-Black from Urban Search and Rescue told Television New Zealand.

They weren’t “getting a huge number of positive responses from the buildings where we would expect there to be more people trapped alive,” Prime Minister John Key told reporters in Wellington today.

Key has arranged a conference call with about 40 chief executive officers from New Zealand’s largest companies to discuss a financial package, he said. New Zealand declared a national state of emergency yesterday to coordinate help from outside the Christchurch region, according to Civil Defense.

Police imposed a nighttime curfew in some areas of Christchurch yesterday amid concerns that more buildings may collapse. Members of the public within the center’s four main avenues after 6:30 p.m. local time faced arrest, police said.

Trapped Alive

About 300 people are unaccounted for with some possibly trapped in buildings, while the Grand Chancellor has been evacuated, New Zealand Police said. Television images show one side of the 26-story Chancellor cracking and sagging. More than 100 people may have died in the Canterbury TV building, the New Zealand Herald reported, citing police.

Photographer: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Collapsed buildings on Manchester Street in Christchurch. Close

Collapsed buildings on Manchester Street in Christchurch.

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Photographer: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Collapsed buildings on Manchester Street in Christchurch.

Twenty-three Japanese students enrolled at an education college in the city of about 400,000 are among the missing, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday. One Australian is among the dead, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

Australia is sending 300 police and 140 rescuers to join the relief efforts. Japan will send a 70-person emergency relief team, Prime Minister Naoto Kan told parliament yesterday.

The death toll from the quake, the strongest since September when the city was shaken by a 7.0 magnitude temblor, is the worst since the Napier earthquake in 1931 killed 256.

Damage to central city buildings was greater than the September temblor because it was shallower and centered just 10 kilometers southeast of Christchurch, according to geonet.org.nz. The Sept. 4 quake was focused 55 kilometers northwest of the city and was also deeper.

City Counts Damage

Tuesday’s temblor struck at 12:51 p.m. local time during the lunchtime break, whereas the September temblor hit at 4:35 a.m. and claimed no lives.

Yesterday, an army helicopter circled a nearly silent city center almost 24 hours after the quake. At cordons, people talked to army and police staff as they tried to access homes or hotels. Others wheeled suitcases along deserted streets.

Cracks several meters long run along some streets. Other main roads swell with sandy mud and surface flooding stretching across footpaths and much of the roads.

On the corner of Gloucester Street and Oxford Terrace in the center, the 10-level Brannigans building’s windows have been shattered. Helmeted inspectors began the task of checking buildings individually for survivors.

Some 80 percent of the city is without water, according to the New Zealand police website.

The quake may be the costliest natural disaster for insurers since 2008. Insured losses from the temblor may be $12 billion, Michael Huttner, an analyst at JPMorgan, said in a note to clients. That would be the most expensive calamity since the $19.9 billion loss from Hurricane Ike, which struck the U.S. in 2008, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based trade group.

Tuesday’s quake served as a reminder of the jolt in Christchurch on Sept. 4 that shook consumer confidence and contributed to a 0.2 percent drop in gross domestic product in the third quarter. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand estimates the September temblor caused NZ$5 billion ($3.7 billion) of damage.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Bourke in Wellington at cbourke4@bloomberg.net; Tracy Withers in Christchurch at twithers@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Iain Wilson at iwilson2@bloomberg.net

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