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Monday, November 14, 2016, 14:18

'Utter devastation' after major NZ quake

By Reuters
'Utter devastation' after major NZ quake
Debris from a building lays on the ground in Wellington, New Zealand, Nov 14, 2016, following an earthquake. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP)

WELLINGTON - A powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake pummelled central New Zealand early on Monday, killing at least two people, damaging roads and buildings and setting off hundreds of strong aftershocks.

Emergency response teams flew by helicopter to the region at the epicentre of the tremor, which struck just after midnight some 91 km northeast of Christchurch in the South Island, amid reports of injuries and collapsed buildings.

A new earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 rattled New Zealand's South Island, hours after a more powerful quake killed at least 2

"It's just utter devastation, I just don't know ... that's months of work," New Zealand Prime Minister John 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". In a statement seen by Reuters, Key said of the likely damage bill: "You've got to believe it's in the billions of dollars to resolve."

Powerlines 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.

Wellington was a virtual ghost town with workers ordered to stay away while the city council assessed the risk to buildings, several of which were damaged by the tremor. Severe weather with 140 km per hour, gale-force winds was forecast for the area.

Hundreds of aftershocks, the strongest a 6.2 quake at about 1.45 pm local time (0045 GMT), rattled the South Pacific country, fraying nerves in an area where memories of a deadly 2011 quake are still fresh.

Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand's ruggedly beautiful South Island, is still recovering from the 6.3 quake in 2011 that killed 185 people.

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.

"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.

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