Image: Local residents Chris and Viv Young look at damage caused by an earthquake along State Highway One, south of the township of Blenheim on South Island. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
By Lincoln Feast and Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand emergency services and defense personnel began evacuating hundreds of tourists and residents from the South Island town of Kaikoura on Tuesday, a day after a powerful earthquake hit the region, killing two people.
The 7.8-magnitude tremor struck just after midnight on Sunday, destroying farm homesteads, sending glass and masonry toppling from high rises in the capital Wellington and cutting road and rail links throughout the northeast of the South Island.
Kaikoura, a popular base for whale-watching about 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Christchurch and near the epicenter, was completely cut off by massive landslips.
Four large defense force helicopters were flying into the town on Tuesday morning and the Navy’s multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury was heading to the area, Air Commander Darryn Webb, the acting commander of New Zealand joint forces, told TVNZ.
“The priority today is the airlift operation,” he said. “We’re looking to do as many flights as we can out of Kaikoura today … around about four flights, to move approximately 200 of those tourists and residents south.”
Other emergency services were also using helicopters to fly in supplies and fly out those who wanted to leave, Civil Defence’s acting national controller Shane Bayley told reporters.
Gale-force winds and rain were hampering recovery efforts, and hundreds of aftershocks continued to rock the region.
China chartered four helicopters and evacuated around 40 nationals, mostly elderly and children, from Kaikoura late on Monday, said Liu Lian, an official at the Chinese Consulate in Christchurch.
One Chinese national had been treated for a non-serious head injury in Kaikoura’s hospital, and around 60 others would be evacuated on Tuesday, Liu said.
“They have been trapped in Kaikoura for a couple of days, some are maybe scared, they have some mental stress,” Liu told Reuters, adding that many planned to continue journeys to other parts of the country.
Around 1,200 tourists were stranded in the town, officials said.
THOUSANDS OF LANDSLIDES
Prime Minister John Key flew over Kaikoura on Monday and described the landslips in the mountainous area as “just horrendous”. The repair bill was likely to run into billions of dollars, he said.
Civil Defence estimated 80,000-100,000 landslides had been caused by the quakes.
Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said restoring water supplies, getting food into Kaikoura and clearing road access were the main priorities.
“The road north is going to be quite a challenge for quite some time,” he said.
Hundreds of homes remained without power and telecommunications, with huge cracks in roads, landslips and other damage to infrastructure making it hard to reach the worst-affected areas.
Workers began returning to office buildings in Wellington’s business district, which was closed off on Monday while the city council assessed the risk to buildings.
Several blocks were damaged by the tremor, including the offices of Statistics New Zealand, which halted the release of economic data and said it would be months before it could use the building.
Many businesses told staff to work from home.
Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s ruggedly beautiful South Island, is still recovering from a 6.3 magnitude quake in 2011 that killed 185 people.
New Zealand’s Geonet measured Monday’s main quake at magnitude 7.5, while the U.S. Geological Survey put it at 7.8.
Seismologists said the quake appeared to be two near simultaneous tremors which shook much of the country for around two minutes.
New Zealand lies in the seismically active “Ring of Fire”, a 40,000-km arc of volcanoes and oceanic trenches that encircles much of the Pacific Ocean. Around 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur in this region.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)
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