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New Zealand PM views devastation after powerful earthquake kills two people

A landslide blocks State Highway One and the main railway line north of Kaikoura
A landslide blocks State Highway One and the main railway line north of Kaikoura

New Zealand's prime minister visited the scene after a powerful earthquake rocked the country, triggering landslides and a small tsunami and leaving two people dead.

Strong aftershocks continued to shake the country on Monday, rattling the nerves of exhausted residents, many of whom had spent a sleepless night huddled outside after fleeing to higher ground to avoid the tsunami waves.

The magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the South Island just after midnight on Sunday in a mostly rural area dotted with small towns. Near the epicentre, it opened up snaking fissures in roads and sparked landslides.

But New Zealand was largely spared the devastation it saw five years ago when a deadly earthquake struck the same region.

Sunday's quake caused damage in Wellington, the capital, more than 120 miles to the north. It was also strongly felt to the south in the city of Christchurch, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2011 that killed 185 people. Residents said the shaking went on for about three minutes.

Police said one person died in the small coastal town of Kaikoura and another in Mt Lyford, a nearby ski resort. Several other people had reportedly suffered minor injuries in Kaikoura, police spokeswoman Rachel Purdom said.

Prime Minister John Key flew over the destruction in Kaikoura by helicopter on Monday afternoon, as aftershocks kicked up dust from the landslides below. Cars could be seen lying on their sides and parts of the road were clearly impassable.

"It's just utter devastation. ... That's months of work," Mr Key told acting civil defence minister Gerry Brownlee as they hovered above the damage.

He estimated the clean-up would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and clearing the debris and blocked roads could take months.

Defence force personnel were planning to take food, water and other supplies to Kaikoura on Tuesday.

The prime minister said waves of about two metres hit the coast but the tsunami threat had since been downgraded to coastal warnings.

He said authorities had no reason to believe the death toll would rise above the two reported fatalities.

"On the very best information we have at the moment, we think it's only likely to be two. But of course there are isolated parts of the country which we don't have perfect eyes on, so we can't be 100% sure," he said.

Mr Key said officials had decided not to declare a national emergency because New Zealand's regions were able to adequately cope with the situation.

The quake completely cut off road access to Kaikoura, said resident Terry Thompson, who added that electricity and most phones were also down in the town of 2,000, a popular destination for tourists taking part in whale-watching expeditions.

He was out of town but managed to reach his wife by mobile phone during the night.

"She said the glass exploded right out of the double ranch-slider," he said. "The neighbour's chimney was gone, there were breakages and things smashed everywhere."

The main road to Kaikoura was blocked in places by landslides, and police were working to airlift out a few tourists stranded in their campervans to the north and south of the town.

Kaikoura suffered "major infrastructure" damage in the quake, the Marlborough Emergency Management Group said.

The earthquake temporarily knocked out New Zealand's emergency call number, 111, police reported.

In Wellington, it collapsed a ferry loading ramp, broke windows and caused items to fall from shelves. It also forced hundreds of tourists on to the streets as hotels were evacuated.

New Zealand, with a population of 4.7 million, sits on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes are common.

The quake brought back memories of the magnitude 6.3 one that struck Christchurch in 2011 and destroyed much of the central area in one of New Zealand's worst disasters.

The latest earthquake was stronger but its epicentre was deeper and much further from major urban areas. Location, depth and other factors beyond magnitude all contribute to the destructive power of an earthquake.

It was centred 57 miles north-east of Christchurch, according to the US Geological Survey. The USGS initially estimated it had a magnitude of 7.4 before revising it to 7.8.

It said the quake struck at a depth of 14 miles, after initially putting the depth at six miles. Earthquakes tend to be more strongly felt on the surface when they are shallow.