New Zealand City, Rocked by Earthquake, Faces Gales

New Zealand Rocked by Magnitude 7.0 Earthquake
The historic St Johns church in Hororata, Canterbury suffered serious damage, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Photographer: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch, faces gale force winds and heavy rains today that may add to an estimated NZ$2 billion ($1.44 billion) of damage caused by yesterday’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake.

Aftershocks hit the city of about 348,000 people during the night and the storm “could place significant stress on already damaged buildings,” the government said in a statement today. The city’s central business district has been closed and all schools will shut until at least Sept. 8.

Christchurch was placed under a state of emergency after the quake struck at 4:35 a.m. local time yesterday, cutting power, damaging roads, rupturing sewer lines and water pipes and ripping facades off buildings. Power has been restored to 90 percent of the city and 80 percent of homes have water services, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said today.

“People, of course, want to see the affected areas get back to normal as soon as possible, especially the central business district of Christchurch,” Civil Defense Minister John Carter said in a statement. “The infrastructure damage is significant and until such damage is assessed, officials and emergency staff in the area and the government must make the safety of civilians the number one priority.”

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.

City Center

The business district will remain cordoned off while buildings, roads and pipes are checked and the area may stay closed tomorrow, Parker told Sky News television today.

“Beneath the roads and streets -- that’s where the real danger is” from broken pipes and power lines, he said.

New Zealand’s Wellington-based stock market will open as normal tomorrow, NZX Ltd. Chief Executive Mark Weldon said.

About 10 smaller Christchurch-based companies listed on the exchange, mainly involved in retail and finance-service operations, may have been affected by the quake, Weldon said in a phone interview today, without identifying them. Christchurch is a regional center for agriculture.

About 270 people spent the night at three centers set up in the city and power is back on at all Christchurch hospitals, the government said.

Rebuilding Job

“You can see the superficial damage,” New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said in a television interview today. “A lot of homeowners will, over time, find damage that they’re not expecting at the moment. There’ll be problems that can’t present themselves visibly underground and there’s a major rebuild job here in Christchurch.”

The main quake struck about 55 kilometers (34 miles) west-northwest of the city and at a depth of 12 kilometers. One person received serious injuries and about 100 others received minor injuries, the government said.

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 yesterday.

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. 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.

Hit By Aftershocks

Several aftershocks followed yesterday’s quake, including one of magnitude 5.7, 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. Damage was reported on the southern part of North Island, home to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, and Auckland, its largest city.

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.

The last quake to cause casualties in the nation hit in December 2007, when buildings in 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.

“We were all finding it hard enough to get to sleep” during last night’s aftershocks, Parker said. The city faces a “massive” damage bill “but, hey, people are alive. We can fix the rest up,” he said.

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