Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city, declared a state of emergency after the nation’s South Island was rocked by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that cut power, damaged roads and ripped facades off buildings.
The quake, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) west-northwest of the city and at a depth of 12 kilometers, hit at 4:35 a.m. local time, rupturing sewer lines and water pipes and closing the airport. One person received serious injuries in the quake, with early government estimates revealing damage may amount to NZ$2 billion ($1.44 billion).
“It’s unbelievable, it’s like a warzone,” Christchurch resident Tracey Chambers said in a phone interview today. “We’ve got so many big, brick historic buildings here and a lot have caved in, including the restaurants and bars. If the earthquake had happened a few hours earlier, hundreds would have been killed.”
The quake comes as New Zealand, whose snowcapped peaks and verdant valleys formed the backdrop to the Academy Award-winning “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, struggles to rebound from its worst recession in 30 years. The country, the biggest global exporter of dairy products and lamb, is affected by about 15,000 earthquakes each year, according to GeoNet, an earthquake-monitoring site.
Christchurch is now bracing for gale force winds and heavy rains that could cause flooding, forecast to reach the city tomorrow, the government said. The army has been placed on standby to reinforce a curfew tonight, according to Television New Zealand.
Christchurch City Council declared a state of local emergency and said it is assessing damage to buildings in case evacuations are needed. The hospital is operating on generator power, the council said in a statement. Christchurch International Airport was closed until 1:30 p.m. local time.
“There would not be a house in the city that has escaped damage in some way,” Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said at a televised news conference today. “We have been extremely lucky as a nation there have been no fatalities,” Civil Defense Minister John Carter said.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who inspected the city today, said in remarks broadcast on NZTV it was a “miracle” no-one was killed in the quake.
The quake was probably the worst to hit New Zealand for 80 years because it was a “bull’s-eye on a major city,” Warwick Smith, from the Institute of Geological Nuclear Sciences, told TVNZ today. Christchurch is home to about 348,000 people, according to Statistics New Zealand.
Damage at Lyttelton Port Co., which handles coal exports about 12 kilometers southeast of Christchurch, will cost “millions” of dollars to repair, Chief Executive Peter Davie said in a phone interview. Wharfs are structurally undamaged and are expected to start receiving ships and cargo again today, Davie said. The damage, mainly to paving and flat surfaces, will take months to fix, he said.
Telecom Corp. of New Zealand, the nation’s biggest phone company, said its infrastructure appears to have escaped major damage.
“Things have actually stood up pretty well from Telecom’s point of view,” company spokesman Ian Bonnar said in a phone interview from Auckland today. “The landline services are pretty much intact. There’s a small number of mobile sites that are out and that’s due to the power blackouts around Christchurch. We should see everything restored as soon as the power comes on.”
Power was restored to about 77 percent of Christchurch by 12 p.m., the government said. About 10 percent of the city could be without power tonight, it said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the event didn’t pose a tsunami threat.
New Zealand’s most powerful recorded earthquake occurred in January 1855 with an estimated magnitude of 8.2, according to GeoNet. It shifted vertically about 5,000 square kilometers of land.
Several aftershocks followed today’s quake, including one of magnitude 5.7 at 4:53 a.m., the U.S. Geological Survey said on its website. The strength of the first quake was revised to 7.2 and later to 7.0 from an initial report of 7.4 by the USGS.
Shaking was felt as far west as Greymouth, about 166 kilometers away, and in Dunedin, about 309 kilometers away, according to Radio New Zealand.
Streets in the downtown part of Christchurch were blocked off by police because of damaged buildings and debris, Radio New Zealand said. People were advised to conserve water, turn off power if a home is damaged, not go to the hospital unless it’s an emergency and refrain from using mobile phones.
Damage was reported on the southern part of North Island, home to New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, and Auckland, its largest city.
The last quake to cause casualties in the nation hit in December 2007, when buildings in downtown Gisborne collapsed. Eleven people were injured and one died of a heart attack, GeoNet said.
New Zealand is starting to benefit from a rebounding global economy and is poised to grow 3 percent this year, compared with a 1.6 percent contraction in 2009, according to the International Monetary Fund.