Rescue under way for thousands stranded by New Zealand earthquake

Military helicopters and a navy ship dispatched to coastal town of Kaikoura with buildings across swathes of country being checked for damage

A major relief effort was under way on Tuesday to reach thousands of people stranded by New Zealands 7.5 magnitude earthquake, which blocked roads and damaged many buildings across parts of the South and North islands.

Military helicopters and a navy ship were dispatched to rescue about 1,000 tourists and hundreds of residents stranded in the coastal town of Kaikoura, which was cut off from land access.

The town had two days of clean water supplies after the councils water tank sustained major damage. Helicopters were flying in water bladders and water engineers to try and re-establish a clean supply.

People in Kaikoura were being told to urgently conserve the existing supply and use it for drinking only. Food and fuel resources were also low, though local restaurants and residents donated much of their own stores to the relief effort including seafood and crayfish.

The local marae (Maori meeting house) cooked and served meals for up to 700 people on Monday, Radio NZ reported, and planned to do the same again on Tuesday.

The New Zealand Transport Authority was working with contractors to urgently clear an inland route to the town in the coming days, though their efforts were hampered by frequent aftershocks up to 800 since the quake according to GeoNet.

The New Zealand military dispatched helicopters from Wellington and HMNZS Canterbury left Auckland on Monday night stocked with relief supplies. Its journey south was slowed by severe weather and rough seas.

From all directions Kaikoura has essentially been isolated, said Air Commodore Darryn Webb, the acting commander of New Zealands joint forces. Theres a real imperative to support the town because it cant support itself.

Webb said the military planned to begin using four NH90 helicopters that could each transport about 18 people out of the town at a time.

Were going to get as many people and belongings out as quickly as we can, Webb said.

It was estimated HMNZS Canterbury may be able to reach Kaikoura by lunchtime on Wednesday.

Bad weather was expected to hit the quake-affected region on Tuesday, said Canterbury civil defence response manager Janelle Mackie.

It is full steam ahead, we are watching the weather really closely but we are making the best of a beautiful, clear morning here.

Mackie said communications in and out of Kaikoura were patchy but steadily improving.

No doubt it is tough conditions on the ground but the community is pulling together. It is a significant event to respond to but in some ways people feel like they have been there before with the Christchurch earthquake and know how to respond quickly and effectively.

The New Zealand Red Cross had teams on the ground in Kaikoura operating an evacuation centre and distributing supplies and support to the towns residents and visitors, said Lauren Hayes, New Zealands Red Crosss media liaison.

The prime minister, John Key, visited quake-affected areas on Monday in a military helicopter and said the destruction was much worse than he had realised.

He told Radio New Zealand that the rebuild would require months of work and the cost for rehabilitating Kaikoura and the wider north Canterbury region could run into the billions of dollars.

So the slips here are horrendous and youve got to believe its in the billions of dollars to resolve these issues, theyre huge slips Im not sure how long it will actually take to move this level of rubble off the road, not to mention the damage to the railways, he said.

Elsewhere strong aftershocks continued to shake parts of the country, rattling the nerves of exhausted residents.

The country was spared the devastation it saw in 2011 when an earthquake struck the city of Christchurch and killed 185 people. That quake was one of New Zealands worst disasters, causing an estimated $25bn in damage.

Mondays quake caused damage in Wellington, the capital, and was also strongly felt in Christchurch. Residents said the shaking went on for about three minutes.

Police said one person died in Kaikoura and another in Mt Lyford, a nearby ski resort. Several other people suffered minor injuries in Kaikoura, police spokeswoman Rachel Purdom said.

Authorities in Wellington told people working in the citys central business district to stay home on Monday. Officials said some large buildings were showing signs of structural stress. The citys suburban rail network was shut 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.

The location of Mondays quake largely helps explain why the damage was less than the 2011 earthquake, said Mark Quigley, associate professor of active tectonics at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The 2011 quake was located almost directly beneath Christchurch, meaning tens of thousands of people were exposed to the most violent shaking at the epicentre. Mondays quake was centred in a rural area home to just a few thousand people.

The 2011 quake also had a tremendous amount of high-frequency energy, including very strong vertical ground motions that felt like youre being picked up by a giant and being shaken around, Quigley said.

But for those in Christchurch on Monday the shaking felt very different more of a rolling motion. They were far enough away that a lot of that high-frequency energy was dissipated, Quigley said.

The quake was centred 93km (57 miles) north-east of Christchurch at a depth of 23km (14 miles), according to the US Geological Survey. The USGS initially estimated it had a magnitude of 7.4 before revising it to 7.8.

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