Christchurch – New Zealand’s most destructive earthquake in nearly 80 years caused two billion dollars’ (about R10 billion) worth of damage today, felling buildings, tearing up roads and sending terrified residents fleeing into the streets.
Officials said it was “extremely lucky” no one was killed when the 7.0 magnitude quake shook the country’s second-largest city, Christchurch, just before dawn.
Frightened residents fled from their homes to find streets covered in rubble and glass, but despite the extent of the damage only two people were seriously injured in the city of 340 000 people.
A state of emergency was declared in Christchurch and a 7pm to 7am curfew imposed in the city centre as initial estimates put the damage at up to two billion dollars.
Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said he was “horrified by the amount of damage” which daylight showed was considerably worse than first thought.
“There would not be a house, there would not be a family in our city that has not in some way have damage done to their person, to their property,” Parker said.
“I think it’s like an iceberg; there is... below the visible line, significant structural damage.”
Few people were on the streets as the quake hit but building facades crashed to the ground, crushing parked cars and showering the roads with shattered glass, while gas and water electricity supplies were cut.
Residents were warned to stay away from damaged buildings for fear of further collapses as severe aftershocks continued to rock the city.
“I think we’ve been extremely lucky as a nation that there’s been no fatalities... we’re blessed actually,” Civil Defence Minister John Carter said after being briefed on the effect of the quake, which he described as a “significant disaster”.
Prime Minister John Key flew to the city to survey the scene and support residents, many of whom described the quake as a terrifying experience.
“We are not going to let Christchurch suffer this great tragedy on its own,” Key said.
The quake, initially recorded at a magnitude of 7.4, struck at about 4.30am New Zealand time at a depth of 5km, 45km west of Christchurch, the US Geological Survey said.
Christchurch Hospital spokesperson Michele Hider said two men in their 50s were seriously injured – one was hit by a falling chimney and the other was cut by falling glass.
The quake, felt throughout the South Island and the southern part of the North Island, was the most destructive in New Zealand since the 1931 tremor in Hawke’s Bay that killed 256 people.