At least two people were killed after a powerful earthquake struck New Zealand near the city of Christchurch early Sunday morning, Prime Minister John Key said during a news conference.
The magnitude-7.8 earthquake sent strong jolts felt over 120 miles away in the capital, Wellington, and prompted emergency services to warn people along the coast to move to higher ground to avoid tsunami waves.
The quake struck just after midnight in a mostly rural area close to the city of Christchurch, according to the USGS.
The quake appeared to be more strongly felt in Wellington, the capital, more than 120 miles to the north. Residents said the shaking went on for about three minutes, and was followed by a number of strong aftershocks.
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.
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.
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 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.
The ministry initially sent out a message on Twitter saying there was no tsunami threat. But then it sent out another message — “situation has changed – tsunami is possible” — before reporting that a tsunami had hit. The ministry then said people on the coast near the epicenter could expect waves of between 10 and 16 feet.