New Zealand emergency services and defence personnel have begun evacuating hundreds of tourists and residents from the South Island town of Kaikoura, a day after a powerful earthquake hit the region and killed two people.
The magnitude-7.8 tremor, which struck just after midnight on Sunday, destroyed historic farm homesteads, sent glass and masonry toppling from high rises in the capital, Wellington, and cut road and rail links throughout the north-east of the South Island.
Kaikoura, a popular base for whale-watching about 150km north-east of Christchurch and near the epicentre, is completely cut off by massive landslips.
Four defence force helicopters flew into the town, 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.”
Around 1200 tourists were stranded in the town, officials said.
Gale-force winds and rain were hampering recovery efforts, and hundreds of aftershocks continued to rock the region.
‘Utter devastation’, says PM after flyover
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has surveyed the damage caused by a magnitude-7.8 earthquake, as aftershocks kicked up dust from the landslides below.
The quake struck just after midnight on Monday, its epicentre striking about 90km north-east of Christchurch in the South Island, leaving a trail of destruction and killing two people.
“It’s just utter devastation … That’s months of work,” Mr Key told acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee as they hovered above the damage.
He described landslips in the area as “just horrendous”.
Mr Key has reportedly said that the damage bill will be in the “billions of dollars to resolve”, with clearing of debris from roads potentially taking months.
The quake completely cut off road access to the town, said resident Terry Thompson, who added that electricity and most phones were also down.
Cars in Kaikoura could be seen lying on their sides and parts of the road were clearly impassable.
Heading south with Gerry Brownlee and Andrew Little to check in on the people of Kaikoura and surrounding areas. pic.twitter.com/dMQ3xi5xPn
— John Key (@johnkeypm) November 14, 2016
A second earthquake, initially measured as magnitude 6.8 but revised down to 6.2, struck hours afterward, but there were no reports of deaths or injuries.
New Zealand’s Civil Defence declared a state of emergency for the Kaikoura region soon after the large aftershock.
Hundreds of aftershocks rattled the country where memories of the deadly 2011 Christchurch quake are still fresh.
The city is still recovering from the magnitude-6.3 quake that killed 185 people, but locals say they are taking the latest tremors in their stride.