Emergency crews in New Zealand have begun evacuating hundreds of people left stranded in the town of Kaikoura after a powerful earthquake cut off road access. Rain and strong winds have hampered the rescue effort.
Four military helicopters started ferrying up to 1,000 trapped tourists out of quake-hit Kaikoura on Tuesday, the defense force said.
The coastal town on New Zealand's rugged South Island, a popular whale-watching spot, was near the epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck in the early hours of Monday morning. The tremor left two people dead, triggered a small tsunami, destroyed state roads and caused massive landslides throughout the region.
Air Commander Darryn Webb told reporters that landslips had essentially blocked off all access to Kaikoura. "We're looking to do as many flights as we can out of Kaikoura today ... to move approximately 200 of those tourists and residents south."
The trapped visitors and locals were being flown out in small groups to Christchurch, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) to the town's southwest.
Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee said authorities had accepted offers of help from the United States and Japanese militaries as part of its ongoing response to the earthquake.
Short on supplies
Inclement weather and hundreds of aftershocks have made the situation difficult for rescue crews. Hundreds of people in and around Kaikoura are camping out in evacuation shelters. And officials say the town - home to about 2,000 residents - only has intermittent power, limited fuel supplies and enough water to last three days.
The New Zealand navy ship, HMNZS Canterbury, has been sent from Auckland and is due to arrive in the area by Wednesday morning with water, food and chemical toilets. If weather permits, it is also expected to evacuate hundreds more trapped people. A military transport plane is also on standby to drop vital supplies to the town if need be.
Prime Minister John Key flew over Kaikoura on Monday and described the landslides in the mountainous area as "just horrendous." He estimated the cost of the repair effort would run into the billions of dollars, adding that clearing the debris and blocked roads would likely take months.
Ring of Fire
Monday's quake also shook Christchurch and caused some structural damage in the capital, Wellington.
New Zealand lies in the "Ring of Fire," an arc of seismic faults encircling the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes are fairly common.
Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, is still rebuilding after a 6.3-magnitude quake in 2011 that killed 185 people.
nm/bw (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)