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Powerful 7.1 quake hits New Zealand's South Island

A 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck much of the South Island early Saturday and caused widespread damage, but few serious injuries were reported.

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The Associated Press
Friday, September 3, 2010; 11:11 PM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- A powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake damaged buildings, cut power and knocked fleeing residents off their feet on New Zealand's South Island early Saturday, but there were so far no deaths and only two injuries reported.

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Panicked residents in their pajamas ran into the streets of the southern city of Christchurch after the pre-dawn quake, residents said. There were reports of some people trapped in damaged buildings - though none appeared to be crushed by rubble - and a few looters broke into some of the damaged shops in the city of 400,000, authorities said.

A state of emergency was declared and army troops were on standby to assist after the quake, which hit 19 miles (30 kilometers) west of Christchurch, according to the state geological agency GNS Science. No tsunami alert was issued.

Roads had been blocked by rubble, power and traffic lights were out, and gas and water supplies disrupted, while chimneys and walls had fallen from older buildings, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said. He warned that continuing aftershocks could cause masonry to fall from damaged buildings.

Suburban dweller Mark O'Connell said his house was full of smashed glass, food tossed from shelves, with sets of drawers, TVs and computers tipped over.

"We were thrown from wall to wall as we tried to escape down the stairs to get to safety," he told The Associated Press.

GNS Science initially reported the quake as magnitude 7.4, but later downgraded it after re-examining quake records. The U.S. Geological Survey, in America, measured the quake at 7.0.

Minister of Civil Defense John Carter stressed the low number of casualties.

"I think we've been extremely lucky as a nation that there's been no fatalities," Carter told reporters.

Still, infrastructure damage was major, with "a lot of damage to our key infrastructure ... water, waste water (sewerage) systems." Earthquake and insurance specialists would give an initial damage assessment within 48 hours, he said.

Experts said the low levels of injury reflect the strict building codes that apply in New Zealand, which records more than 14,000 earthquakes a year.

"New Zealand has very good building codes ... (that) mean the buildings are strong compared with, say, Haiti," which suffered widespread death and devastation in a magnitude 7.0 quake this year, earth sciences professor Martha Savage said.

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