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LATEST: Severe winds forecast tomorrow may be strong enough to further damage already fragile buildings after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Canterbury early this morning.
Many homes have been exposed to the elements, which are expected to take a turn for the worse with gales, and possibly hurricane force winds inland, forecast for tomorrow afternoon.
"Normally gales, up to 130km/h, don't cause too many issues across Canterbury," WeatherWatch.co.nz head weather analyst Philip Duncan said.
"However with so many buildings possibly teetering on collapse we may well see more facades collapsing and chimneys, walls and roofs falling down."
Locals and emergency services should take seriously the MetService wind warning in place for Christchurch and Canterbury until Monday, preparing for more possible power cuts by ensuring torches work and stocking up on batteries.
"With the infrastructure so delicate at the moment being prepared will make any further problems much easier to deal with," Mr Duncan said.
The worst of the gales would be in inland Canterbury, but winds would still be strong in the quake-damaged areas.
» More photos, interviews, analysis, eyewitness accounts and on-the-ground coverage in tomorrow's Sunday Star Times.
ONE QUAKE OR THREE?
Scientists are investigating whether the 7.1 magnitude earthquake which struck Christchurch and its surrounding communities today was actually two or three shocks in quick succession.
The US Geological Survey (USGS ) in Golden, Colorado, has said that scientists are still trying to reconstruct the way today's quake played out.
"We think that this is a very complex event," said geophysicist Paul Caruso. "We think that the main shock may have consisted actually of three earthquakes."
GNS Science in Wellington - which changed its initial calculations of a 7.4 magnitude shake 30km west of Christchurch to a 7.1 shake 40 km west - said it could not confirm the mechanisms of the earthquake.
"There are several parts to this earthquake occurring within seconds of each other and it will take some time to decipher what the waveforms recorded by our seismographs tell us about the sequence of events," said a spokesman.
HELP ON THE WAY
More than 80 police officers from Auckland are on their way to Christchurch this afternoon to help maintain order in the city centre tonight.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has also requested the army help provide safety and security in the city following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck the city this morning.
The city centre was shut to the public today and will remain closed overnight with police staffing cordons throughout the area. No licensed premises will be open in the CBD.
There is a formal curfew in place between the hours of 7pm and 7am that has been put in place to protect the public from falling debris. Anyone breaching the curfew can be arrested.
Mr Parker said he requested Prime Minister John Key ask the army to maintain safety and security and help the police over the next 24 hours.
Meanwhile, as search and rescue teams scour the rubble in Christchurch, the director of Civil Defence says it is still too early to be sure there are no casualties from this morning's massive earthquake.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) C-130 Hercules is currently en route to Christchurch carrying Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) personnel and dogs. Forty two USAR personnel, their equipment and three USAR dogs from the Auckland and Palmerston North areas are on board
Buildings were destroyed, infrastructure including water and sewage pipes damaged, and people injured in the earthquake which struck 40km west of Christchurch at 4.35am. It is the most damaging since the 1931 earthquake in Napier.
The cost of the cleanup could run into billions of dollars, Mr Key said.
Mr Key told reporters upon arrival in Christchurch this afternoon that he had seen the damage from the air and it was extensive.
"It will be some time before we know the full extent of the damage but the early indications are it could run into the billions of dollars,'' Mr Key said.
As Mr Key toured the city, a fire has broke out in front of him. Mr Key and his team, and the media following him, were asked to move out of the city, although fire crews appeared to have the blaze under control.
Speaking from the Beehive's emergency bunker this afternoon, director of the Ministry of Civil Defence John Hamilton said that because of the amount of damage to buildings in the CBD, there was still a risk that somebody would be found trapped, or worse.
"And until the area is cleared, you can never be sure," Mr Hamilton said.
Meanwhile, one person has died of a heart attack, suffered during the earthquake, an emergency doctor in Christchurch said.
Canterbury people are being urged not to drive unless absolutely necessary as officials try to gauge the damage caused to roads in this morning's earthquake.
All state highways in and around Christchurch were usable, and all major structures, including the Lyttelton Tunnel, had been given the all clear.
State Highway 77 between Methven and Windwhistle was the only state highway currently closed because of earthquake damage.
KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said rail links to Christchurch from the south had been restored, clearing the way for a delivery of almost 300,000 litres of drinking water.
Christchurch International Airport reopened this afternoon after the runways and infrastructure were assessed for damage.
Air New Zealand said 77 domestic flights and 11 international flights had been affected by the airport closure, and it was likely to take the rest of the day to clear the backlog of passengers.
There were four Urban Search and Rescue Teams in New Zealand - two of which were being flown in on airforce planes from Auckland and Palmerston North to Christchurch today. The teams included dogs that could search for people stuck in rubble.
"In the Christchurch CBD, there is a combination of business premises but also there are apartments and some flats in those places," Hamilton said.
The timing of the quake - early this morning - was very lucky, he said.
"I have no doubt that had it occurred at say 12pm or 2pm on a Friday afternoon or shortly after a Canterbury rugby game the situation in terms of casualties would be much, much worse," Hamilton said.
"But equally, there is still significant damage and there are still large numbers of people whose homes and livelihoods now have been severely disrupted and it's going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort to stick things up again."
BIG AFTERSHOCK FEARS
Seismologists are warning Canterbury residents a big aftershock is probably still on the way.
Nearly 20 aftershocks have rattled the region since the early morning quake.
Most had magnitudes of between four and five, and three others have been of magnitude 5.2 or 5.3.
But GNS Science said a large aftershock of about one magnitude less than the original - about six in this case - usually occurs after a major earthquake.
"We haven't had the six or so you'd usually expect after something like this," GNS spokesman John Callan said.
A magnitude six earthquake has 30 times more energy than a magnitude five.
Duty GNS seismologist John Ristau said the large aftershock was "the typical rule of thumb".
"It's typical, but there's nothing to say it will definitely happen. If you don't get one, of course, then that's better."
Aftershocks could continue for weeks but the larger ones were only likely in the next 48 hours.
Scientists from as far away as the United States are on their way to Canterbury to deploy portable monitoring equipment to record aftershocks.
GNS Science, Victoria University of Wellington and Stanford University seismologists will start to install the equipment around midday tomorrow and will leave the battery-powered seismographs for about three weeks to find out more about the mechanics of the main shock and rupture.
The cost of damage from today's devastating quake could be as much as $2 billion, Earthquake Commission chief executive Ian Simpson says.
The EQC's claims staff had been flat out taking calls today and there was no data yet on the number lodged, he said.
"It's very early to start estimating the numbers so far," he said.
"At a guess, and it is just a guess so far, we are looking at ...around 100,000 claims in total from the event and the cost will be easily into the hundreds of millions of dollars just for EQC for the residential property... It could reach between one and two billion dollars."
People who had private house insurance were automatically qualified for EQC cover.
HIGHEST LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT SUPPORT
Mayor Bob Parker has told shaken Canterbury residents that support has been offered from the ''highest levels of Government''.
Mr Parker was speaking at a Civil Defence press conference outside a temporary headquarters at the Christchurch Art Gallery today.
Christchurch - and the wider South Island - was rocked by the massive 7.1 magnitude quake at 4.35am. Buildings were flattened, residents injured and infrastructure damaged.
The quake - initially reported at 7.4 magnitude but later downgraded - was centred 30km west of the city and 33km underground. It has been followed by a series of strong aftershocks.
A state of emergency has been declared and will be in place until Monday or Tuesday. The CBD is in lockdown until at least tomorrow.
''There has not been a house or a family in our city who have not suffered damage in some way,'' Mr Parker said.
''But this is a city working together to do what we can before nightfall.
The fine weather had been a blessing, he said. However, Met Service has issued a severe weather warning for tomorrow, with gale force winds expected for much of the South Island.
Today's 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Canterbury is the most damaging since the 1931 magnitude 7.8 Hawke's Bay earthquake, scientists say.
The quake - felt across the South Island and as far north as Wellington and Palmerston North - matches the magnitude of that which rocked Inangahua in 1968.
Canterbury Police said the inner-city would be closed until tomorrow while assessments of damaged buildings was carried out.
No businesses or licensed premises would open and no one, other than inner-city residents or people with bona-fide reasons to enter the area, would be allowed in. Police will man cordons throughout the night.
The CBD-area affected by the cordon is bordered by Montreal, Kilmore, Madras and St Asaph streets.
Emergency services have rescued about 10 people from holes in the ground including a person who was trapped in a pit in River Road after the ground collapsed.
So far, two people have been reported seriously injured in the quake.
One man in his fifties was hit by a falling chimney and is now in a serious condition in the intensive care unit in Christchurch Hospital.
Another man in his fifties has serious injuries after being cut by glass in the earthquake.
The Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, John Hamilton, said the National Crisis Management Centre has been activated to co-ordinate central government response if required.
Search and rescue teams have been deployed to the central city to check for trapped people in the rubble of the quake.
Christchurch fire service spokesman Mike Bowden there were several people trapped in their houses and other buildings by falling chimneys, jammed doors and blocked entrances. However, there were no reports of people pinned underneath rubble so far.
A dairy factory and several farms in rural Canterbury have also been hit hard by the quake.
Federated Farmers is reporting a backlog at the Synlait factory, where a power outage has seen lines jammed. Several tankers have had to be re-directed.
A milk vat and milking platform near Burnham have been damaged, and several grain silos near Darfield are also damaged.
Electricity is now the major problem facing north Canterbury's farmers.
"It could be up to two-days before power is fully restored so electricity is the main concern," said Federated Farmers spokesman Neil Stott.
"Thankfully, a number of farmers have invested in backup generators but these are a short-term fix."
"The welfare of livestock will now be of prime concern to farmers and we appreciate the offers now coming in from fellow farmers."
Prime Minister John Key said he was rushing to Canterbury to "show solidarity" with locals.
Speaking before he departed for Christchurch this afternoon, Mr Key said it would be "a good result under the circumstances" if Canterbury escaped without any loss of life.
"We want to get to Christchurch quickly to show solidarity and support for the people of Canterbury but also to make sure that we're fully briefed on the issues and the rebuild programme that will be required."
It would take some time before a final assessment of the damage and the cost of the clean up would be known.
"But it's important that the people of Canterbury know that we're there to support them and that central Government will work alongside local government to do our best to restore the Canterbury region."
Mr Key was first contacted about the quake by his sister, who lives in a hill suburb of Christchurch. She had told him the shaking went on for 15 minutes and was so violent they couldn't stand up.
There had been an even bigger earthquake in Fiordland last year but this one was in a very built up area.
"It's quite terrifying for people," Key said.
Key will stop in Wellington to collect Cabinet colleagues John Carter and Gerry Brownlee before an expected arrival in Christchurch of about 2pm this afternoon.
About five per cent of buildings in central Christchurch have been damaged and streets are littered with the rubble of building facades.
Many minor bridges have been damaged but all major bridges and road transport routes are okay. The surface of Avonside Drive, in eastern Christchurch, has a huge crack across it.
The Fire Service has divided the city into grids and is sending staff into each area to assess the damage.
Residents have been asked not to drive into the central city.
All Canterbury emergency co-ordination centres - including Selwyn, Timaru, Waimakariri and Hurunui districts - have been activated.
CONCERN OVER LOOTING
There have been reports of looting in central Christchurch following the quake.
Inspector Mike Coleman said police had cordoned off central Christchurch as it was dangerous but also because looters had already been active.
''There's considerable damage there, and we've already had reports of looting,'' he told Radio New Zealand.
''Shop windows are broken and obviously it's easy pickings for displays and things.''
Additional police staff had been sent out to patrol the city streets.
Christchurch Hospital's emergency department has also seen several people with minor injuries - mainly cuts and bruises, but also some broken bones.
Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman Michele Hider said they were still assessing damage to hospitals and still experiencing after shocks
People who need medical assistance for minor injuries they should go the after hours surgery in Bealey Ave.
She asked people not to go to Christchurch Hospital's Emergency Department unless it is an emergency.
Christchurch hospital is running on generator power.
Canterbury Health Board chief executive David Meates said the flow of people through Christchurch Hospital's emergency department had been like ''a typical Saturday night''.
The common injuries were cuts and fractures but one man is in intensive care after being crushed by a crumbling chimney.
Burwood Hospital is without water.
''Public health is going to be a real issue over the next few days so it is important that communities look after each other and not create an unnecessary burden on services,'' Meates said.
St John Ambulance said services were fully functioning but urged medical alarm users not to activate them unless they were injured or unwell.
Christchurch radiographers have abandoned a planned strike for today.
EQC pays out a maximum of $112,500 (inc GST) on houses and $22,500 (inc GST) on contents, Earthquake Commission chief executive Ian Simpson says.
Any damage above that was usually covered by insurance companies.
"If the loss is higher than that it kicks into their private insurance."
Those with no insurance were not covered by the EQC.
"People who are unsure of their insurance situation, or don't remember who they're insured with, should contact us too. We will do all we can to check their insurance details for them," Mr Simpson said.
Claims would come in from a far wider area than Christchurch and small claims, for example broken dishes, would be expected as well as the more substantial ones.
"What I would say to people is the immediate first step is to look after yourselves and your families, look after safety let the emergency services and then when you are ready to place a claim (do so)."
People had three months to lodge a claim but he advised against waiting too long.
"We would encourage people maybe over the next week would be a good time to place a claim."
Claims could be lodged by calling 0800326243 or online at www.eqc.govt.nz
People should contact EQC personally, rather than getting their broker, agent or insurance company to call, Mr Simpson said.
People should, if possible, take photos before moving anything or tidying up as it made it easier to assess the claim.
"If you are able to, essential services, like toilets and water systems can be repaired but people should keep everything the repairer replaces, and keep a copy of the bill," he said.
"Spillages or crockery and glass breakages can be cleared up, but don't throw anything not perishable away yet. Ruined or spilt food and other perishables can be disposed of, but people should list the items as they bury, burn, or dump them."
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