Policemen and locals look at damage following an earthquake, along State Highway One near the town of Ward, south of Blenheim on New Zealand's South Island, November 14, 2016.
Policemen and locals look at damage following an earthquake, along State Highway One near the town of Ward, south of Blenheim on New Zealand's South Island, November 14, 2016.

A strong new earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 rattled New Zealand's South Island on Monday, hours after a more powerful quake killed at least two people, damaged roads and buildings and sent thousands fleeing to higher ground.

New Zealand lies in the seismically active "Ring of Fire", a 40,000 km arc of volcanoes and oceanic trenches that partly encircles the Pacific Ocean. Around 90 percent of the world's earthquakes occur within this region.

The country is still recovering from a 6.3 quake on the South Island in 2011, which killed 185 people.

Emergency response teams were flying by helicopter to the region at the epicentre of the original 7.8 magnitude quake, which struck just after midnight some 91 km (57 miles) northeast of Christchurch, amid reports of injuries and collapsed buildings.

Capital city Wellington was a virtual ghost town with workers ordered to stay away while the city council assessed the risk to buildings. Severe weather with 140 km per hour (85 mph), gale-force winds was forecast for the area.

The new tremor, a 6.2 quake recorded at about 0045 GMT, was the most powerful of hundreds of aftershocks in the South Pacific country.

In the upper South Island, powerlines and telecommunications were down, with huge cracks in roads, land slips and other damage to infrastructure making it hard to reach the worst-affected areas.

"It's just utter devastation, I just don't know ... that's months of work," New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee after flying over the area.

New Zealand's Civil Defence declared a state of emergency for the South Island's Kaikoura region, centred on a tourist town about 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Christchurch, soon after Monday's large aftershock.

Kaikoura, a popular spot for whale watching, appeared to have borne the brunt of the quake.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) said later on Monday a 20-person rescue team and two sniffer dogs had arrived in the town.

A second team was on standby in Christchurch, USAR said in a statement.

"The whole house rolled like a serpent and some things smashed, the power went out," a woman who gave her name as Elizabeth told Radio New Zealand from her home in Takaka, close to the top of the South Island.

Residents in Wellington said glass had fallen from buildings into the streets.

A series of aftershocks were recorded around the country, some as strong as 6.1 magnitude. Damage in capital city Wellington (Pictured) was also bad. (Reuters)
A series of aftershocks were recorded around the country, some as strong as 6.1 magnitude. Damage in capital city Wellington (Pictured) was also bad. (Reuters)

Twin Quakes

Hours after the quake, officials said a slip dam caused by the quakes that had blocked the Clarence River on the South Island had breached, sending a wall of water downstream.

"Residents are urgently advised to move to higher ground immediately," RNZ quoted a statement from the Marlborough District Council as saying.

A tsunami warning that led to mass evacuations after the original quake was downgraded after large swells hit Wellington, in the North Island, and Christchurch. There were no new tsunami warnings issued after the 6.2 aftershock.

Local residents look at damage caused by an earthquake along State Highway One near the town of Ward, south of Blenheim on New Zealand's South Island, November 14, 2016. (Reuters)
Local residents look at damage caused by an earthquake along State Highway One near the town of Ward, south of Blenheim on New Zealand's South Island, November 14, 2016. (Reuters)

New Zealand's Geonet measured Monday's first quake at magnitude 7.5, while the US Geological Survey put it at 7.8. The quakes and aftershocks rattled buildings and woke residents across the country, hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre.

Government research unit GNS Science later said the overnight quake appeared to have been two simultaneous quakes which together lasted for more than two minutes.

Richie McCaw

At least one of those killed was found in a house in Kaikoura that "collapsed like a stack of cards", Kaikoura Hospital's Dr Christopher Henry told Fairfax media. Two other people were pulled alive from the same building.

New Zealand media reported one of the pilots taking rescuers to the area was Richie McCaw, the recently retired captain of New Zealand's world champion All Blacks rugby team.

"At one point, the railway was way out over the sea - it had been pushed out by (land) slips. It would not have been a nice place to be at midnight last night," McCaw told the New Zealand Herald after helping fly the USAR team to Kaikoura.

Kevin Heays, of Environment Canterbury in Kaikoura, told Radio New Zealand roads were badly damaged and power poles were down, effectively isolating the town. New Zealand television reported that water to the town had also been cut off.

Residents in Wellington caused gridlock on the roads to Mount Victoria, a hill with a lookout over the low-lying coastal city. Around 100 people, including children sleeping on floors and benches, camped out overnight in the distinctive parliament "Beehive" building.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies