Two powerful earthquakes shook central New Zealand yesterday damaging hundreds of homes and roads and sending office workers scrambling for cover in the capital Wellington.
A magnitude-6.5 quake struck near the small South Island town of Seddon, and at least six aftershocks were measured at 5.0 magnitude or stronger.
No serious injuries were reported although the power was cut and hundreds of people in the north of South Island and southern parts of North Island were left stranded.
A police spokeswoman said several homes near the epicentre were “severely damaged”, with chimneys collapsing and roofs caving in.
She said a bridge was severely damaged on the main highway near Seddon, and rocks and debris had fallen on to the road. Police were forced to close a section of State Highway 1 – a major traffic route. Some buildings in Wellington, including businesses and shops, were evacuated and shop owners reported items being knocked off shelves and windows shattering as the earthquake hit.
Chris Birks, general manager of the Hotel d’Urville in Blenheim, near the quake epicentre, said: “The building just shook and it went on and on and on. It’s pretty frightening.”
The initial tremor forced the nation’s stock exchange to close for more than an hour. Air, rail and bus services were suspended while officials checked tracks, runways and roads for damage.
The quake, which hit near the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, was dangerously shallow at a depth of about five miles, similar to a deadly tremor that devastated the South Island city of Christchurch in 2011 and killed 185 people.
There were also widespread power cuts across the north of South Island.
The latest earthquake comes a day after Christchurch celebrated the completion of a temporary cardboard cathedral which replaces the one damaged by the 2011 earthquake.
Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown last night said there was no major damage to the city’s infrastructure or office buildings.
She described traffic as “chaos”, but said there was no indication of severe damage so far.
Major congestion of telecommunications systems was also reported.
A city council statement said: “Use texts rather than calling to reduce overloading on phones. Airport open but flights disrupted.”
Residents in Wellington, the country’s capital, said they saw lampposts swaying and water pipes burst after the quake struck at 2:31pm local time.
The US Geological Survey said the epicentre of the initial tremor was 58 miles west of Wellington.
A quake of similar strength in the same area three weeks ago broke water mains, smashed windows and downed power lines.
Caroline Little, a seismologist with New Zealand quake monitoring agency GeoNet, said the series of quakes since July had followed an unusual pattern.
She said: “Normally you get a big quake and then the aftershocks get smaller in magnitude.”
Ms Little said the July quake was on a fault line near Seddon that had not previously been mapped.
She added it was too early to determine if yesterday’s quakes were on that same fault.
A different fault line runs through Wellington, and many in the city fear an earthquake along that fault could result in a major disaster.
New Zealand is part of the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire” that has regular seismic activity.
New Zealand cabinet minister Steven Joyce yesterday tweeted: “Lots of aftershocks. Beehive wobbling around like a jelly, but all ok”.