Prime Minister John Key said it was “a miracle” no one had died when the major 7.0 magnitude quake wreaked more than a billion dollars of damage on the nation’s second-biggest city Christchurch on Saturday.
Civil defence officials warned that ongoing aftershocks with magnitudes of up to 5.4, coupled with a ferocious storm blowing in, could threaten already-weakened buildings.
Despite widespread damage, none of the city’s 340,000-strong population died when the quake struck before dawn on Saturday.
“Parts of the city look like they’ve been put in the tumble dryer and been given a darn good shake,” said the prime minister.
Engineers praised New Zealand’s stringent building standards for the limited damage.
“There’s no doubt it’s a very, very significant reason why there wasn’t more destruction,” the director of the Joint Centre For Disaster Research at Wellington’s Massey University, David Johnston, said.
Central Christchurch remained cordoned off yesterday although most of the power, water and sewagefacilities cut in the earthquake had been restored.
Emergency evaluation teams picked their way through streets piled with rubble and littered with shattered glass to inspect buildings and determine whether evacuations were necessary.
Coastal and riverside suburbs were among the worst-hit areas, and health fears may yet force evacuations, the civil defence agency said in a statement.
More than 200 people have moved into welfare centres for temporary accommodation.
The Salvation Army said it was feeding 1,000 people and launched an appeal for those affected by the quake.
“Not since the 1930s have we experienced an earthquake as severe and it is important that we do everything we can to help,” Salvation Army national fundraising coordinator Major Robbie Ross said.
Key also pledged government support, with initial damage estimates at two billion NZ dollars (€1.18bn).
“We are here to support them. We are not going to let Christchurch suffer this great tragedy on its own,” the prime minister said.
The earthquake was New Zealand’s most destructive since the 1931 tremor in the North Island city of Napier, which killed 256 people.
Civil defence officials warned the emergency was not over, as more than 30 aftershocks had hit the region within 24 hours of the main quake and could continue for several weeks.
A storm was also likely to bring fresh challenges with wind gusts last night and heavy rain due tomorrow.