A powerful earthquake struck New Zealand’s South Island early Monday, shaking residents awake, causing damage to buildings and prompting emergency services to warn people along the coast to move to higher ground to avoid tsunami waves.
The magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck just after midnight in a mostly rural area close to the city of Christchurch, but appeared to be more strongly felt in Wellington, the capital, more than 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the north. Residents said the shaking went on for about three minutes, and was followed by a number of strong aftershocks.
The quake temporarily knocked out New Zealand’s emergency call number, 111, police reported. Near the epicenter, it opened up snaking fissures in roads and triggered landslides. In Wellington, it collapsed a ferry loading ramp, broke windows and caused items to fall from shelves. It also forced hundreds of tourists onto the streets as hotels were evacuated.
Authorities in Wellington were urging people who work in the center of the city to stay home on Monday. City officials said that some large buildings were showing signs of structural stress, and that the quake would likely have caused a mess in some buildings. The city’s suburban rail network was shut while crews checked tracks, bridges and tunnels.
At daybreak, several hours after the quake struck, there still were no reports of serious injuries in Wellington or Christchurch. Still, the quake brought back memories of the magnitude-6.3 earthquake that struck Christchurch in 2011, destroying much of the downtown area and killing 185 people. That quake was one of New Zealand’s worst disasters, causing an estimated $25 billion in damage.
Although Monday’s quake was stronger, its epicenter was much farther from any major urban areas. Location, depth and other factors beyond magnitude all contribute to how destructive an earthquake can be.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management reported that a tsunami wave struck at about 1:50 a.m. and warned residents living in low-lying areas anywhere along the country’s east coast to move to higher ground.
Information from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center indicated that the tsunami waves could be highest around the South Island town of Kaikoura, at about 1.5 meters (5 feet). The Hawaii-based center said it did not expect the quake to generate a destructive Pacific-wide tsunami.
Within New Zealand, there was confusion about the tsunami threat.