Saturday, September 04, 2010

NZ "extraordinarily lucky" after 7.1 quake

"In some ways we were extraordinarily lucky" said Bob Parker, the Mayor of Christchurch in New Zealand, following a massive 7.1 magnitude. He wasn't referring to the town being fortunate to experience such a disaster however. Christchurch was lucky in the senseb that no deaths have yet to be reported and most injuries sustained have been relatively minor.

The earthquake, initially reported as a 7.4 but downgraded later to a 7.1 magnitude, struck some 40 km to the west of Christchurch [43.332S, 172.437E] on New Zealand's south island at 4:35 local time [16:35 UTC]. The tremor lasted more than 40 seconds and shook residents from their slumber. There was initially thought to be only minor damage the impact may be far bigger than was immediately apparent.

Many old buildings collapsed in Christchurch, leaving streets covered in bricks and rubble. Cracks appeared in some streets and many people were left homeless as police closed off the centre of the city. Others were forced to abandon their badly damaged homes. The city was without power, water and gas for hours and telephone links came under severe threat as batteries ran low on cellphone sites. Fortunately land lines and 111 emergency call lines remained intact.

Speaking later in the day the prime minister John Key said it was likely that only a "snapshot of the damage" had been seen. Already there are further problems after broken water mains caused flooding to large areas. Looting has also been reported and police have imposed a curfew. Meanwhile a state of emergency was declared.

There were further scares in New Zealand's second largest city, home to 386,000 people, after two aftershocks struck the vicinity. Both were relatively small at 5.1 on the Richter scale. Earthquakes are not unknown in New Zealand. The country experiences more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, of which only around 20 have a magnitude in excess of 5.0. 

Tonight bad weather is predicted. Gale-force winds are expected in the coming hours which may compound problems faced by the emergency services and residents.

Television and radio coverage has been criticised by some for not providing information. Dean Marshall expressed his concerns. "The radio was playing normal music. Nobody knew what to do. The co-ordination was terrible down here," he told TVNZ, "We were wondering if there was a tsunami risk which meant we needed to go up to higher ground but we heard nothing."

TV coverage has also been scant on news channels around the globe. While it is the headline story on BBC, CNN and Sky News, it is not the saturation coverage often seen following similar events elsewhere. 

As darkness fell in Christchurch a curfew was imposed from 7pm until 7am in the morning. Canterbury Police will be supported by 80 Auckland officers flying in to assist with general duties and recovery. The army has also been drafted to help with security, with much of the central business district still without power. While the curfew is mainly to protect people from falling debris, looting is also a major concern. Anyone found in the central business district would be arrested, police have said.

A full scale search and rescue effort has also been rolled-out. An Air Force Hercules has been sent to the region, with Urban Search and Rescue personnel and dogs to help in the aftermath of the earthquake. Forty two Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) personnel from Auckland and Palmerston North, along with their equipment and three dogs, were being deployed, authorities said. Two Iroquois helicopters from No. 3 Squadron at Ohakea have also been tasked to assist in Christchurch and will be used to undertake aerial reconnaissance and damage assessment as required by Civil Defence [TVNZ].

Only two people are in hospital with serious injuries, but there were hundreds of minor injuries reported. But while people came off unscathed, the city is shattered. Major roads are littered with debris and railway lines have buckled, hundreds of homes and other buildings are too dangerous for anyone to enter. It may be some time before the city is able to put things back in order and damage is already being estimated at more than $2 billion.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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