The Christchurch earthquake is likely to be New Zealand's worst disaster, Civil Defence Minister John Carter has warned, as the Government gives itself sweeping powers.
Yesterday Mr Carter announced a state of national emergency and confirmed it was the first time in the country's history that it had been invoked for a civil defence emergency.
A state of national emergency was also declared for the 1951 waterfront workers' lockout.
In a ministerial statement to Parliament, Mr Carter said the emergency was of "such a degree that the required civil defence emergency management will be beyond the capacity of local civil defence emergency people to respond on their own".
The Civil Defence Emergency Management Act says declared emergencies have a seven-day duration and may be extended.
They give civil defence staff the power to close and restrict access to roads and public places; remove and secure dangerous structures and materials, provide rescue, first aid, food and shelter; conserve essential supplies and regulate traffic; dispose of dead persons and animals; advise the public; provide equipment; enter premises; evacuate premises; remove vehicles and requisition equipment and materials or assistance.
A state of national emergency was not declared for previous disasters, including the 1931 magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which killed 256 people.
Mr Carter said he felt it was justified in this case because of the devastation and the likely impact it would have on so many people.
Asked if that meant the Government now considered Tuesday's earthquake New Zealand's worst natural disaster, he responded: "Certainly the history books would tend to show that it's likely to be.
"Until we have an absolute understanding of what's out there we can't say that for sure but it certainly looks like it's likely to be."
The state of national emergency was declared after an emergency session of the Cabinet, at which it was agreed to set up a temporary mortuary at Burnham Military Camp "for capacity reasons".
Police Minister Judith Collins later confirmed Corrections was moving prisoners out of the low-security Rolleston Prison to free up 320 beds for rescue personnel who began arriving in Christchurch from around the world.
The Canterbury Recovery Committee is due to meet this morning after the return to New Zealand of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, who cut short a trip to the Middle East.
The Cabinet had previously approved itself sweeping powers after the earthquake in September.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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