A powerful earthquake rocked New Zealand just after midnight Monday local time, killing at least two people.
The quake struck north of Christchurch on South Island. It registered a magnitude 7.8 and several strong aftershocks are continuing to shake the area as well.
Authorities said they were not yet declaring a national emergency, saying the island’s regions are coping well, despite the damage.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said “in terms of the areas that are most affected, that’s clearly on the east coast, around the Kaikoura area and inland around Culverden and the like. We have had very limited communications there because that’s been cut off.”
The quake forced hundred of tourists into the streets as hotels were evacuated.
Authorities in Wellington urged people who work in the center of the city to stay home. Wellington city officials said some large buildings were showing signs of structural stress and that the quake would like have caused damage to some buildings.
The city’s suburban rail network was shut down while crews checked tracks, bridges and tunnels.
New Zealand, with a population of 4.7 million, sits on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes are common.
Rescue and recovery efforts are well underway. For many in New Zealand, the quake brought back memories of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck five years ago in 2011 that killed 185 people. That quake was one of the country’s worst disasters, causing an estimated $25 billion in damage.
We spoke to former Hawaii resident Sanoe Decaries who’s now living in New Zealand, specifically Hamilton on South Island, north of the epicenter of the quake.
Luckily, her home didn’t have any damage, and she slept right through it. “I was bummed that I missed out on all the action,” she said. “My house is on stilts, so I thought that if any earthquake were to happen, that I would be able to feel it.”
Decaries said her neighbors were surprised that she didn’t feel the quake. “Their houses were shaking and swaying, there were dogs barking and going crazy. My sister-in-law described it as though she was experiencing vertigo.
“A lot of my friends were saying they were just surprised at how long it lasted, especially being so far from us. They said it just felt like it was going to last forever.”
Barry Hirshorn of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said even though the earthquake registered a magnitude 7.8, and ruptured a long area up towards Wellington, it just wasn’t big enough to generate a tsunami here.
“The beginning of the earthquake was on land, but as it turns out, it ruptured into the ocean,” he said.
As to why a tsunami warning was issued for New Zealand but not for Hawaii, Hirshorn said “we would need a larger event to do that, a rupture in a larger area. … One possibility where we would’ve potentially seen a tsunami is if it had been in a subduction zone (Ed. note: a region of the Earth’s crust where tectonic plates meet) and had been a clean thrust earthquake completely in the ocean.”
In the meantime, clean up efforts are underway, and Decaries says some mobile carriers are opening up their Wi-Fi hotspots so residents can get in touch with loved ones.