New Zealand faces huge damage bill from powerful quake’s ‘utter devastation’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 9:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 11:24pm

New Zealand faces a battle to recover from the powerful earthquake that struck the country Monday as landslides cut off communities, strong aftershocks hit and thousands were left without vital infrastructure.

The magnitude 7.5 quake struck at 12:02 a.m. local time north of the South Island city of Christchurch, where 185 people were killed in an earthquake in 2011. It violently shook the capital city of Wellington at the southern end of the North Island and triggered a tsunami warning. A 6.2 magnitude quake rattled New Zealand’s South Island hours later. Two people died.

Prime Minister John Key, who flew over affected areas by helicopter, estimated the cost of the damage could run into a “couple of billion” dollars.

“It’s just utter devastation, I just don’t know ... that’s months of work,” Key told Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee after flying over the coastal town of Kaikoura, according to Brownlee’s Twitter account.

He described landslips in the area as “just horrendous”.

Power lines and telecommunications were down, with huge cracks in roads, land slips and other damage to infrastructure making it hard to reach the worst-affected areas.

A tsunami warning that led to mass evacuations after the original quake was downgraded after large swells hit New Zealand’s capital Wellington, in the North Island, and Christchurch.

Despite the widespread damage, the financial fallout would pale in comparison to the 2011 quake in the city of Christchurch that killed 185 people and required a NZ$40 billion ($28 billion) rebuild that is still being completed.

New Zealand’s capital Wellington was a virtual ghost town with workers ordered to stay away while the city council assessed the risk to buildings.

New Zealand’s Civil Defence declared a state of emergency for the Kaikoura region, centred on a tourist town about 150 km northeast of Christchurch, soon after Monday’s large aftershock.

Kaikoura, a popular spot for whale watching, appeared to have borne the brunt of the quake.

Six mainland Chinese tourists were airlifted to Christchurch from the tourist town, Xinhua reported, one slighty injured.

Hong Kong’s Immigration Department said it had received several requests for assistance from worried family members unable to contact relatives either living or holidaying in New Zealand.

“Our immediate priority is ensuring delivery of clean water, food and other essentials to the residents of Kaikoura and the estimated 1,000 tourists in the town,” Brownlee said.

The Navy’s multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury was heading to the area, he said.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) said a 20-person rescue team and two sniffer dogs had arrived in the town. A second team was on standby in Christchurch, USAR said in a statement.

Video taken from a helicopter near Kaikoura showed three cows stranded on an island of grass in a paddock that had been ripped apart in the quake. The patch of grass was surrounded by deep ravines of collapsed earth, trapping the animals where they stood.

Hours after the quake, officials said a slip dam caused by the quakes that had blocked the Clarence River north of the town had breached, sending a wall of water downstream.

A group of kayakers missing on the river was later reported safe.

New Zealand’s Geonet measured Monday’s first quake at magnitude 7.5, while the US Geological Survey put it at 7.8. The quakes and aftershocks rattled buildings and woke residents across the country, hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre.

Geonet said four faults had ruptured, with one at the coast appearing to have slipped as much as 10 metres.

Government research unit GNS Science said the overnight tremor appeared to have been two simultaneous quakes which together lasted more than two minutes.

New Zealand lies in the seismically active “Ring of Fire”, a 40,000 km arc of volcanoes and oceanic trenches that partly encircles the Pacific Ocean. Around 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes occur within this region.

Prime Minister Key postponed a trip to Argentina, where he had planned to hold a series of trade meetings ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in Peru this week, as he met disaster officials.

At least one of those killed was found in a house in Kaikoura that “collapsed like a stack of cards”, Kaikoura Hospital’s Dr Christopher Henry said. Two other people were pulled alive from the same building.

New Zealand media reported one of the pilots taking rescuers to the area was Richie McCaw, the recently retired captain of New Zealand’s world champion All Blacks rugby team.

“At one point, the railway was way out over the sea - it had been pushed out by (land) slips. It would not have been a nice place to be at midnight last night,” McCaw told the New Zealand Herald after helping fly the USAR team to Kaikoura.

Monday’s quake was stronger but its epicentre was deeper and much farther from major urban areas. Location, depth and other factors beyond magnitude all contribute to the destructive power of an earthquake.

The location of Monday’s quake largely helps explain why the damage was so minimal compared to the 2011 temblor, said Mark Quigley, associate professor of active tectonics at the University of Melbourne in Australia. The 2011 quake was located almost directly beneath Christchurch, meaning tens of thousands of people were exposed to the most violent shaking at the epicentre. Monday’s quake was centred in a rural area that is home to just a few thousand people.

The 2011 quake also had a tremendous amount of high frequency energy, including very strong vertical ground motions which felt “like you’re being picked up by a giant and being shaken around,” Quigley said.

But for residents living through the tremor, particularly those who survived the Christchurch disaster, it was a terrifying experience.

“It was massive and really long,” Tamsin Edensor, a mother of two in the South Island city said.

“We were asleep and woken to the house shaking, it kept going and going and felt like it was going to build up.”

Soon after the earthquake, tsunami warning sirens sounded, with police and emergency workers going door to door to evacuate seaside properties.

Civil Defence, responsible for emergency management in New Zealand, warned of a “destructive tsunami” with waves of up to five metres.

However, the largest waves were only about two metres before the alert was lifted.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press