A strong aftershock has rattled New Zealand after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake northeast of Christchurch killed two people and sent thousands fleeing to higher ground. A tsunami threat was later downgraded.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said two people had been killed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked the country's South Island overnight on Monday.
"We don't have any indications at the moment to believe [the death toll] will rise, but we can't rule that out," Key said in the capital Wellington, adding he was heading to the small coastal town of Kaikoura.
According to the US Geological Survey, the shallow earthquake hit at 12:02 a.m. local time on Monday (1100 UTC Sunday) about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of South Island at a depth of 15 kilometers. The quake was followed by aftershocks, including a large 6.2 magnitude earthquake 120 kilometers northeast of Christchurch.
Emergency services were dispatched to the region by helicopter amid reports of injuries, collapsed buildings and damage to infrastructure.
Authorities issued a tsunami warning for southern coastal areas shortly after, telling residents to seek higher ground immediately. The first waves began to hit the South Island a few hours later.
Early on Monday, however, the department of civil defense posted a tweet confirming that the tsunami threat had been downgraded. People were warned, however, to stay away from beaches and water as a marine and beach threat still existed.
"Strong currents and unpredictable water flows continue," the tweet read.
Blackouts and broken windows
Witnesses told reporters that the quake lasted what felt like a long time.
"The whole house rolled like a serpent and some things smashed, the power went out," a woman who gave her name as Elizabeth told Radio New Zealand from her home in Takaka, near the top of the South Island.
"We were asleep and woke to the house shaking; it kept going and going and felt like it was going to build up," Tamsin Edensor, a mother of two in Christchurch, told AFP news agency.
"We're getting aftershocks at the moment. We're going to stock up on water supplies just in case."
In Wellington, 214 kilometers north of the epicenter, there were reports of blackouts, broken windows and collapsed chimneys.
In February 2011, the city of Christchurch was devastated by a 6.3 earthquake, killing 185 people. More than 10,000 buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed.
New Zealand is on the boundary of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, which form part of the so-called Ring of Fire.