Rescue teams were searching for people trapped in the rubble of a major earthquake that caused extensive damage Saturday in Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city.
Basic sanitation was likely to become a major health concern because numerous sewer and water lines were damaged across the city, Civil Defense officials said. About 1,000 residents of two suburbs were put on alert to evacuate their homes as widespread damage to sewer pipes threatened major flooding.
Two men were seriously injured and scores of other people suffered less serious injuries in the aftermath of the quake, which registered 7.0 on the Richter scale. It struck at 4:35 a.m. (1:35 p.m. Friday ET), the U.S. Geological Survey said in Washington.
The timing of the quake probably saved many lives, Civil Defense authorities said, because most people were braced in their beds and not packed into the older commercial buildings that suffered the brunt of the damage.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said there was no danger of a tsunami.
Mike Bowden, a spokesman for the Christchurch fire service, told The Press newspaper of Christchurch that an unknown number of people were trapped in their homes and other buildings by falling chimneys, jammed doors and blocked entrances. He said emergency services were being flooded with calls but that they could respond only to “cases of life and death” because of widespread damage to roads and bridges.
More on the New Zealand earthquake
Civil Defense officials declared a state of civil emergency shortly after 9:30 a.m. Christchurch Airport was closed, and rail service was shut down across the South Island. Several major bridges were impassable.
Christchurch authorities reported “substantial infrastructure damage” to bridges and utilities, particularly sewer and water facilities, and said many other buildings had been damaged. Mayor Bob Parker said basic sanitation was likely to become a major health concern.
“Don’t flush your loos,” Parker told residents.
Civil defense agency spokesman David Millar said at least six bridges in the region had been badly damaged, while the historic Empire hotel in the port town of Lyttelton was "very unstable" and in danger of collapse.
Prime Minister John Key told NewsRadio ZB that temporary housing would be made available for people whose homes were uninhabitable.
Key said his sister, who lives in the area, was safe.
About 1,000 residents of the suburbs of New Brighton and Brooklands were told to be ready to evacuate because severely damaged underground sewer and storm pipes were likely to cause significant flooding, Civil Defense Minister John Carter said.
The Port of Lyttelton, the main trade gateway to the south island, suffered “hundreds of millions of dollars in damage,” Chief Executive Peter Davie told Radio New Zealand. And witnesses said hundreds of tons of rock fell off Castle Rock, a major rock outcropping that is a tourist attraction on the Banks Peninsula.
Quake hits in the middle of the night
“It was real intense,” Lennon Cameron, 18, a student in Christchurch, told msnbc.com. “My house is older, and the best way to describe the feeling was like having jelly on a plate, and shaking the jelly.
“I woke up thinking it was a truck, but quickly realized it wasn’t,” said Cameron, who was interviewed through instant messages because his telephone was out. “My wardrobe door was swinging open and shut real fast. Things on my wall were falling off everywhere.”
Right after the initial tremors, “a lot of people went outside to check on each other, but then there were aftershocks, so people went back inside. ... My home has a few cracks in the roof but is otherwise OK.”
Wen Baragrey, who lives by the beach in North New Brighton in Christchurch with her husband and two children, described a chaotic scene to msnbc.com.
“The ground was moving so much, I fell on the way to the door,” Baragrey said by e-mail. Once she and her family got outside, “it was frosty and freezing cold. In the distance, I could see bright flashes of light around the city and hear explosions. Apparently that was the power transformers blowing.”
Fearing that a tsunami might follow, Baragrey and her family scrambled to their car, managing to grab one of their two dogs on their way out.
“We left in our pajamas. ... There were burst pipes and water flooding over the road,” she said. “We have a four-wheel drive, so we dodged it all and got out of the city as fast as we could. None of the traffic lights were working, so it was chaos.”
The Baragreys arrived safely at a relative’s house 30 minutes away, where they were staying.
Many injuries, only two of them serious
Christchurch Hospital said it was treating two people with serious injuries, one of them a man in his 50s who was in critical condition after his chimney collapsed on him. The other was a man in his 50s who was in serious condition with cuts from flying glass, the hospital said.
Other hospitals in the region around Christchurch — New Zealand’s second-largest city and the biggest on its large South Island, with a population of about 350,000 — said they were treating dozens of people with lesser injuries, mainly cuts and broken bones.
Roger Sutton, chief executive of Orion New Zealand, the country’s main power utility, told Radio New Zealand that its switchboards were jammed as residents tried to report power failures and downed lines. He said it could be “a long time” before power was restored.
Other Orion officials told Radio New Zealand that tens of thousands of people would likely remain without power after nightfall.
Hundreds of residents posted reports of damage and aftershocks on Twitter.com, and some posted pictures of damage on Web photo services.
‘Very, very significant’ damage — but it could have been worse
Parker, the mayor, said “the damage is very, very significant ... much more than is immediately apparent.”
“The most important thing at this stage seems to be that there’s been no loss of life,” Parker said, but he said officials were “just beginning to come to terms with the scale” of the damage.
John Ristau, a seismologist with New Zealand Institute of Geological and Nuclear Science, said that by all rights there should have been much more damage than had been observed so far.
The quake was unusually shallow, at only 6.25 miles, Ristau said, which meant the shock waves would not have dispersed much before breaking through the surface.
One effect, however, was to limit the magnitude of the two dozen or so aftershocks, none of which registered much above 5.5, he said. In addition, Christchurch is a “strange place for an earthquake of this size. ... Usually the area around Christchurch, you don’t get too many big ones.”
And because New Zealand is in a well-recognized earthquake zone, “homes are more strongly built than they are in a lot of other countries,” he told Radio New Zealand.
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