NZ earthquakes: Wellington cut off, mass evacuations begin in south

Yesterday an earthquake, today a flood: a scene in Petone, Wellington, today
Yesterday an earthquake, today a flood: a scene in Petone, Wellington, today
Wild weather lashes NZ's capital, a day after a massive earthquake killed two people and caused major damage

Wild weather lashed Wellington today, cutting the New Zealand capital’s land links to the rest of the country, just a day after a massive earthquake killed two people, disrupted the lives of thousands of residents and tourists, and caused billions of dollars of damage.

As hundreds of aftershocks rumbled on, some of earthquake strength themselves, the two highways and railway line out of Wellington were closed when torrential rain and gale-force winds whipped the region.

Residents were evacuated from houses in Porirua and Karori after landslips threatened to bring them down.

Many schools were closed and pupils sent home. The few workers who had returned to their offices in the central city were asked not to try to get home until after 6pm, because roads are flooded, commuter rail services were suspended this afternoon following more aftershocks, and buses are stretched beyond their current limited capacity.

The Hutt Valley was worst affected by the floods because the Hutt River overflowed its banks, while power was out in northern suburbs around Porirua.

The cordoned-off area in the central city was widened after inspections showed earthquake damage to some buildings and the risk of falling glass or concrete was more severe than first thought.

These include Westpac Stadium (the Cake Tin), where the Phoenix’ weekend football game has been called off; TSB Arena and Statistics NZ’s new national headquarters on the waterfront; as well as major office and retail centres.

In Kaikoura, the northern South Island town most affected by yesterday’s quakes, the Defence Force began flying stranded, distressed tourists and shaken locals out of the shattered coastal region.

It is running a shuttle service with four military helicopters to bring supplies in and take people out but bad weather is hampering the operation.

Two NZ Navy ships will arrive at first light tomorrow to complete the evacuation. The US has offered the USS Sampson, in Auckland to mark the Navy’s 75th anniversary, and its two helicopters; Malaysia has offered a military helicopter.

It’s estimated 1200 tourists are in the popular destination – headquarters of New Zealand’s whale-watching safaris. The Chinese Government chartered a helicopter to fly its nationals out, and a travel operator chartered a private plane to take 30 tourists to Christchurch.

The town is severely damaged and has no effective power, communications, roads, water or sewerage. Last night the district council said there was three days’ water left. The hospital is full.

It’s hoped to open a one-lane, inland road to Kaikoura in 2-3 days. The main route – the coastal road State Highway 1 – and the rail line that runs next to it are wrecked.

The New Zealand Parliament met in Wellington this afternoon, with Prime Minister John Key and Opposition Leader Andrew Little making statements of condolence and support about the earthquake and its aftermath.

Key, Finance Minister Bill English and acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee fronted a press conference to update developments.

Things weren’t going to revert to normal quickly. “It’s going to take quite some time to get back to the way [things] used to be,” English said.

There was significant damage in Wellington and Kaikoura. Disruption to transport links would be major, with both the Picton and Wellington ports damaged, and North-South Island links would be disrupted for “quite some time”.

“This is going to add up to something fairly significant,” English said.

Damage to State Highway 1 and other infrastructure was so severe transport authorities may look at realigning parts of the network.

“The slips are of a scale that are very meaningful. So one of the questions will become, in rebuilding the road, is it absolutely in the right place? Is rail in the right place? And how susceptible is it to a future earthquake or slip?” Key said.

The lesson from Christchurch’s 2011 earthquakes was that damage which initially appeared innocuous could end up being quite serious.

The Government was relying on people having their own insurance but in circumstances where that was not the case it would “potentially look to give them some support”, Key said.

The Government would look at help to keep Kaikoura businesses afloat. Many relied on the passing tourist trade and would struggle with no road or rail links, he said.


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