Reports of attempted looting are emerging this morning as Gisborne retailers return to their shops to survey the widespread damage from a 6.8 magnitude earthquake.
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Police have locked down the centre city and The Dominion Post can reveal that staff at one of the city’s largest stores say there were problems with looters last night – soon after the quake struck.
Smiths City manager Carol McCartin said cars had pulled up outside the store soon after the earthquake and attempts were made to enter through a broken window. She and other staff had been forced to confront people “after a cheap Christmas” who were trying to enter the store.
Witnesses also said attempts were made to steal items from another CBD store.
Briscoes, which like Smiths City is based on Childers Rd, suffered extensive damage when aisles collapsed and products shattered.
The store was open for late night Christmas shopping when the earthquake struck.
Store manager Matt McDonald lives nearby and as soon as the shaking stopped he ran back to his store. He arrived to the carnage of most of the homeware store's product lying shattered on the floor.
"The staff were really shaken up and some of the customers were crying," he said.
Today the store looks like a bomb has hit. Aisles have toppled over, spilling their contents which then shattered on the floor.
The store's fluorescent lighting tubes and fittings dangle precariously from the ceiling. Walking through the aisles full of broken glass was like "walking on snow" one witness said.
Mr McDonald said it simply relieved no staff or customers were hurt: "Stock is replaceable, people aren't."
The quake, at 8.55pm, caused considerable damage, with some buildings in Gisborne destroyed and widespread damage in the central business district.
Police and the fire service struggled to cope with the destruction.
The guts of three historic buildings collapsed in the central city. Windows exploded, verandas collapsed and holes opened up in roads. People were knocked off their feet.
An aftershock was recorded this morning at 6.47am which measured 4.5 on the Richter scale.
It was centred 50km south east of Gisborne at a depth of 60km.
Police report the aftershock was barely felt.
Gisborne's mayor Meng Foon urged residents to head for the hills if another earthquake struck the region amid tsunami fears after the initial quake.
He said because the 6.8 magnitude earthquake was centred close to shore, south east of the city, there was no tsunami warning system. Panicked people rushed onto the streets of Gisborne when the 8.55pm quake hit and hundreds then took to higher ground.
However the GNS Science tsunami panel said there was no evidence a monster wave had been generated.
Civil Defence Minister Rick Barker, who was in Hastings last night, was driving to Gisborne this morning to inspect the damage.
Residents said the quake arrived with an "enormous roar".
The earthquake, which was more powerful than the 1987 Edgecumbe earthquake, was centred 50 kilometres south of Gisborne at a depth of 40 kilometres. The Edgecumbe quake was much shallower.
A Ministry of Civil Defence spokesman, Vince Cholewa, said he could confirm three buildings had collapsed.
"As far as we are aware, there are no injuries in those building, in the CBD," he said.
"Most of the damage is utilities – gas, water and electricity.
At least two roofs had collapsed with a parapet crashing through the roof of the Hallensteins Building in the main street. Police evacuated the central business district.
There were also unconfirmed reports of people trapped in a lift.
Aucklander Norman Maxwell was talking to a relative in Gisborne when it hit.
"He started screaming and said, 'Help me, help me, it's the biggest earthquake ever' ... I heard this tremendous roar like it was the end of the world.
"I thought the house was breaking up, then the phone went dead."
St John ambulance spokesman Shane Clapperton said two or three people had suffered minor injuries in Gisborne. Staff left damage at their own homes to man six ambulances. Firefighters dealt with six fires.
Police locked down a one-square-kilometre area in the central city to keep buildings secure.
A Civil Defence meeting was held at 11.30pm to organise accommodation for an unknown number of people displaced from their homes.
Civil Defence emergency management director John Hamilton said the National Crisis Management Centre had been activated. A state of emergency has been declared.
A spokeswoman for Gisborne Hospital last night said no patients have presented with injuries as yet but the hospital's water tanks had been affected and there were some "leakage problems".
"No patients have been hurt and everything at the hospital has been running well."
Gisborne District Council spokesman Vance Walker said there had been no loss of life.
"We're currently in the situation of trying to ascertain what damage has been done," he said.
He described the quake as a series of sharp shocks, followed by a lull then more shocks.
"There's been some minor damage in Gisborne and we would possibly expect similar levels of damage in Wairoa, Napier and Mahia," said GNS Science duty seismologist Warwick Smith. "It's been felt very widely".
Stuff.co.nz readers report the earthquake was felt strongly in in Wellington, Blenheim and Nelson and tremors were reported further down the South Island including Christchurch, Dunedin and Hokitika on the west coast.
Gisborne resident Clare Webber said the tremor felt like it just went on and on and on.
"The power went off and things started crashing around me. My dog was crying but all I could think of was getting to my 11-month- old baby sleeping in the next room.
"I grabbed my baby and then the rocking and roar of the earthquake stopped. It sounded like thunder, but a lot worse because it was a constant roar.
Ms Webber said people headed for the hills.
"We all became like ants scurrying here and there, but no-one seemed to know where to go or what to do - we had a traffic jam at 10 o'clock in the evening."
Dennis Munro of Kohitane Farm near Wairoa reported extensive damage to his farmhouse, including a toppled chimney, cracks in the walls and a collapsed kitchen ceiling.
No one in the house was injured, but all were shocked, Mr Munro said. His family were not staying at the house tonight because of the extent of the damage.
The house was a "real mess" and even Christmas gifts were destroyed, he said.
Murray McPhail, who has a property at Makauri, about 10km from Gisborne city, said he could see waves in his swimming pool as the quake shook.
"You could just about surf on it," McPhail said.
"Stuff come out of cupboards, bottles fell off walls, ornaments fell.
"It was pretty violent. It was certainly a decent shake."
National MP Craig Foss, who lives at Waimarama on the Hawke's Bay coast said his "whole house seemed to rock for ages.
"Our youngest, five years old, was woken by the quake and noise and we all stood under an internal door frame. I am sure the lights dimmed just before the quake hit. It seemed to go on for a long time.
"There was a lot of creaking and groaning. Our home seemed to take a long time to settle down and stop moving."
A Napier reader reported their phones went down temporarily and glasses fell out of their cabinets.
Callan Attwell of the Capital and Coast District Health Board said in an email: "Everyone in theatre in the Wellington hospital felt it."
Alarms were set off in Lower Hutt by the quake, Hutt resident Amanda Botha said.
The earthquake was also strongly felt in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
- Dominion Post, Stuff.co.nz, - With NZPA
- The Dominion Post