Military helicopters to rescue 1000 tourists from New Zealand whale-watching town cut off by quake

Kaikoura is a popular destination for travellers taking part in whale-watching expeditions, but a powerful earthquake cut off train and vehicle access

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 4:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 November, 2016, 6:13pm

New Zealand is planning to send in military helicopters and a navy ship to rescue about 1,000 tourists and hundreds of residents who remain stranded in the coastal town of Kaikoura after a powerful earthquake on Monday cut off train and vehicle access.

The magnitude-7.5 quake struck the South Island just after midnight. It left two people dead and triggered a small tsunami. It also brought down rocks and mud that swept across highways and cracked apart roads.

Home to about 2,000 residents, Kaikoura is a popular destination for travellers taking part in whale-watching expeditions or wanting a stopover with mountain views. But the quake knocked out water supplies and sewerage systems and left people with no easy way out.

“From all directions, Kaikoura has essentially been isolated,” Air Commodore Darryn Webb, the Acting Commander of New Zealand’s Joint Forces, said.

“There’s a real imperative to support the town because it can’t support itself.”

Webb said the military planned to begin using four NH90 helicopters on Tuesday that could each transport about 18 people out of the town at a time. He said a ship was also leaving Auckland on Monday night that could potentially pick up hundreds of people if weather conditions allowed.

“We’re going to get as many people and belongings out as quickly as we can,” Webb said.

He said the weather forecast wasn’t looking great and the operation could take several days. He said that if needed, a C-130 military transport plane could drop fuel, water, food and other supplies to the town.

Prime Minister John Key announced on Monday morning that two people were killed - one man died when historic Elm Homestead collapsed in Kaikoura and another man had a heart attack at his property in Mount Lyford.

Key later travelled with the New Zealand Air Force across the wider Kaikoura region and said the damage was much worse than initially thought.

“It’s pretty horrendous for the people of Kaikoura and there will be a massive cleanup,” Key said.

Meanwhile, six mainland Chinese tourists were airlifted to Christchurch from Kaikoura, Xinhua reported.

Katarina Kroll, from the UK, was on her honeymoon in Kaikoura. She said from Kaikoura hospital that she and her husband were trying to get out.

“We’re stranded here, there’s no access as the state highway is clocked by huge land slips and roads cracked on either side of the peninsula,” she said.

“We’ve signed up to a helicopter register that in theory would take us to Christchurch but not sure if that’ll come to fruition. They’re saying 2 weeks before the roads open.”

Leigh Smith from Goose Bay, 15 kilometres south of Kaikoura, said that they were very close to the epicentre of the earthquake.

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“The shaking was massive and violent, the noise was horrendous. We live opposite the beach and our first thought once we were able to stand was to seek higher ground in case of a tsunami,” she said.

“We spent the night in our car at the top of a nearby hill, feeling continual aftershocks. Once the tsunami threat was passed we went back to our house which luckily stood solid.

“We spent the day with no power, no phone, no reception, no water, and one hell of a mess to clean up inside.”

Residents and tourists cut off by road were also faced with the stress of not being able to communicate with their loved ones as all telecommunications down.

Some were able to get to Kaikoura Hospital which has wifi, they were able to send out essential messages to let family and friends they were safe.

The quake will be a major blow to Kaikoura’s tourism revenue with New Zealand’s $34.7bn industry just beginning the peak of its season.

The town, which means to eat crayfish in Maori, is an iconic spot for both New Zealanders and international travellers alike.

It is where the snow-capped southern Alps meet the rugged coastline of the Pacific ocean and it offers some of New Zealand’s most striking landscape.

Whale watching tours are a major draw card with more than 100,000 tourists taking boats or planes to see blue whales that make their annual pilgrimage to Antarctic waters to feed. Tourists also see minke, blue, see, fin, killer and pilot whales.

Additional reporting by The Guardian