SYDNEY -- A powerful earthquake measuring 7.8 magnitude hit the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island just before midnight there on Sunday, triggering multiple aftershocks and tsunami waves and killing at least two people, officials said.
Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management officials warned people living near the coast to move inland to higher ground as tsunami waves raised seawater levels in some places by about six feet. Officials in Wellington, the capital, urged people to stay out of its central business district until the risk of damage to its buildings could be assessed.
Prime Minister John Key said the earthquake had killed at least two people, but he offered no specifics, Reuters reported.
“We don’t have any indications at the moment to believe it will rise, but we can’t rule that out,” Key said of the death toll, speaking to reporters in Wellington.
The New Zealand Herald reported that one of the deaths had resulted from a heart attack and that another had taken place on a historic homestead near the beach town of Kaikoura.
“There are some reports of casualties in the Kaikoura area, but just exactly what the extent of that is is not yet reported,” Gerry Brownlee, the country’s acting minister of civil defense, told reporters. He said that the extent of property damage “will become clearer, I suspect, with daylight.”
The earthquake struck about 50 miles southwest of Kaikoura and 50 miles north of Christchurch. Elliot Fim, a regional official in that city, said in a telephone interview that there were no reports of damage, injuries or fatalities. The fire department was dealing with a large number of emergency calls seeking assistance.
Fim said people living along about 200 miles of coastline had been evacuated. Some roadways and a building were reported damaged, but people had been able to move to high ground. A spokesman for the Wellington Region Emergency Management office said there were reports of minor damage in the capital city.
Dan Jaksa, a duty officer from Geoscience Australia, said that if the small townships north of Christchurch did not have earthquake-resistant buildings, “it is going to be tough.”