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Evacuations underway in quake-hit New Zealand
By Chris FOLEY
Christchurch, New Zealand (AFP) Nov 15, 2016

Earthquakes in New Zealand: Some questions
Christchurch, New Zealand (AFP) Nov 14, 2016 - A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed two people and caused massive infrastructure damage in New Zealand on Monday. Here are some facts about the seismically active nation known as the Shaky Isles:

Why so few casualties?

The key was distance from major population areas. In a devastating 2011 quake in nearby Christchurch, which left 185 dead, the shallow epicentre was very close to the city centre, causing large buildings to collapse which accounted for many of those who died. In contrast, Monday's quake was centred in a rural area around halfway between Christchurch and Wellington. Seismologists said the 2011 disaster also had more powerful high-frequency energy, lasting barely 10 seconds, while Monday's quake, despite having a higher magnitude, was deeper and of a lower frequency. This saw the energy released more slowly over a longer period -- up to two minutes -- as it travelled in a "rolling" motion along an estimated 200 kilometre (124 miles) fault line.

So where does this quake rank?

The quake, near Kaikoura, was measured at 7.8 by the US Geological Survey and 7.5 by New Zealand's official GeoNet service. Regardless of which figure is used, it still ranks as one of the largest ever recorded in the South Pacific nation. The biggest was an 8.2 monster that hit Wellington in 1855. The deadliest was a 7.8 tremor in Hawke's Bay in 1931 that claimed 256 lives. Using USGS's 7.8 figure, Monday's quake was the joint second strongest in New Zealand. GeoNet's 7.5 magnitude ranks it jointly as the sixth most powerful on record.

How does NZ cope with so many quakes?

New Zealand has strict building compliance codes that aim to limit quake damage and keep casualties to a minimum. Modern buildings such as "The Beehive" parliamentary complex in Wellington have complex foundation systems incorporating huge rubber blocks that allow it to shake without sustaining structural damage. Residential houses are generally built of timber, which flexes and bends in a quake, rather than collapsing like masonry. The system failed in the 2011 Christchurch quake simply because the fault line which caused the tremor was unknown before it ruptured, so authorities thought the city was relatively stable and did not impose the strict conditions used elsewhere.

Can New Zealand expect 'the big one'?

New Zealand sits on the boundary of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, which form part of the so-called "Ring of Fire", and experiences up to 15,000 tremors a year. The most powerful to date was the 8.2-magnitude disaster in Wellington in 1855 that caused four deaths and changed the city's entire geography, pushing the shoreline out 200 metres (650 feet) as it thrust the harbour floor upwards. New Zealand's government-run GNS Science says on its website that the Alpine Fault, which runs for about 600 kilometres up the spine of the South Island, has a high probability of rupturing in the next 50 years. This will produce one of the biggest earthquakes since European settlement. It has only ruptured four times in the past 900 years, each time producing an earthquake of about magnitude 8.0.

Rescuers in New Zealand on Tuesday began airlifting tourists stranded by a 7.8 earthquake that devastated parts of the South Island's rugged coast, as a navy ship headed to the stricken area to help.

Military helicopters started ferrying the first of 1,200 tourists trapped in the seaside town of Kaikoura, which bore the brunt of the quake that claimed two lives when it struck early Monday.

Officials said the US and Japanese militaries would also help the relief effort.

Huge landslides have cut Kaikoura's road and rail links, and police said water was running low, power was intermittent and hundreds of people were staying in evacuation shelters.

The town has a population of 2,000, which Prime Minister John Key said was bolstered by an extra 1,200 tourists, mostly international backpackers attracted by the area's popular whale-watching cruises.

Key said getting them out safely was top priority and four military helicopters started transporting them to nearby Christchurch with naval ship HMNZS Canterbury taking hundreds more when it arrives, likely Wednesday.

He estimated the quake repair bill would reach billions of dollars but the first job was delivering much-needed supplies to the town.

"It's more water and food, it's more chemical toilets, it's fixing up the road access, getting those tourists out and then ultimately the big clean-up job," he told TVNZ.

The Defence Force said a C-103 Hercules was on standby to drop supplies, while local media said up to 50 civilian helicopters were also being drafted into the evacuation effort.

Tourist Marie-Louise Forster said the quake's ferocity was like nothing she had ever experienced.

"We thought that someone was shaking our van and trying to get in," she told Fairfax New Zealand. "We were very afraid."

The tremor, one of the most powerful ever in the quake-prone South Pacific nation, hit just after midnight on Monday morning with more than 800 aftershocks complicating relief efforts.

The Canterbury warship set off from Auckland late Monday and its commanding officer Simon Rooke said it could take up to 500 people.

"We're going to pick them up by landing craft and sea boats and extract them to Lyttelton (in Christchurch) so they can get to a point of safety," he said.

Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said he had accepted a US offer to contribute two MH-60 helicopters and Japan would also provide assistance, although its exact nature was still under discussion.

Heavy rain and driving winds were hampering clean-up efforts, although life outside the main Kaikoura disaster zone was slowly returning to normal as roads opened and power was restored.

- 'Absolutely terrified' -

The quake triggered landslides that dumped mountains of rocky debris on a main highway and ripped railway tracks 10 metres (30 feet) off course.

Huge fissures opened up in roads and some houses were rocked off their foundations.

One person died at a historic homestead that collapsed at Kaikoura, with another killed at a remote property north of Christchurch.

Experts said the relatively low death toll was because the quake was centred on a sparsely populated area and hit at night, when people were in their homes.

It was felt across most of the country, causing severe shaking in the capital Wellington, about 250 kilometres (155 miles) away.

The tremor ignited painful memories for Christchurch residents, which was devastated five years ago by a 6.3 tremor that killed 185 people.

It also set off a tsunami alert, with seaside properties evacuated amid fears of five metre (16 feet) waves, which failed to eventuate.

Key flew over the quake's epicentre on Monday and said he was shocked to see such "utter devastation".

The New Zealand leader admitted he was concerned that tourism, the country's biggest export earner, would take a hit after images of the damage flashed around the world.

"People worry about earthquakes," he said, recounting visiting Hungarian President Janos Ader's experience of the latest tremor.

"He'd never been in an earthquake in his life, so he was in the James Cook Hotel (in Wellington) absolutely terrified at what was happening."

Key said New Zealand's strict construction codes meant its buildings were high quality and tourists' chances of being caught in a tremor were "truthfully very low".

The country is on the boundary of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, which form part of the so-called "Ring of Fire", and experiences up to 15,000 tremors a year, mostly minor.

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Previous Report
Two dead after NZ quake, residents flee tsunami
Christchurch, New Zealand (AFP) Nov 13, 2016
Rescuers in New Zealand were scrambling Monday to reach the epicentre of a powerful 7.8 earthquake that killed at least two people and sparked a tsunami alert that sent thousands fleeing for higher ground. The jolt, one of the most powerful ever recorded in the quake-prone South Pacific nation, hit just after midnight Monday near the South Island coastal town of Kaikoura. As dawn broke t ... read more

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