Hikers warned away from park

July 16, 2009 12:00 am

, WELLINGTON, July 16 – New Zealand authorities warned people against entering a remote southern national park while they checked for damage from the country’s largest earthquake in 78 years.

Following the 7.8 magnitude quake, civil defence officials were carrying out an extensive aerial search of the South Westland region of South Island and ground parties were checking on hikers known to be in the area.

The powerful tremor, which prompted a tsunami warning after it struck at 9:22 pm Wednesday (0922 GMT), was followed by several strong aftershocks.

However, it was centred 35 kilometres (22 miles) deep off the coast of the largely uninhabited South Westland region, and there were no immediate reports of serious damage.

Prime Minister John Key, who was on a scheduled trip to the southern city of Invercargill, about 160 kilometres from the epicentre, said any government response would depend on damage that had yet to be assessed.

"All the feedback we’ve had so far is while it’s been a large quake, certainly at this point (there is) no reported loss of life, which is fantastic, and no great reports of damage."

The quake was felt as far away as Australia where a performance at Bondi Pavilion in Sydney was reported to have been cancelled and theatregoers evacuated on fears of a tsunami.

About 50 people were also evacuated from homes and resorts on Lord Howe Island, which lies between Australia and New Zealand.

However, there was only a small surge of water, about 17 centimetres (around seven inches) high, and the tsunami warning was cancelled after its size was confirmed when it reached the port of Bluff, near Invercargill, about an hour after the quake.

At first light Thursday, department of conservation teams entered the Fiordland National Park, which is popular with hikers and said their priority was to check on people known to be in the area.

"It is advisable for anyone planning a trip into the park to wait for the outcome of the safety checks currently under way," the department said in a statement.

Once the checks have been completed, the focus would be on damage to huts, structures, bridges and roads.

The regional civil defence emergency management group was also carrying out an aerial survey, although co-ordinator Neil Cruickshank said early reports showed no significant damage.

"While there has been disruption to electricity supplies, power companies reported no major problems, and the rail network is reported to be undamaged. Telephone services are operational," he said.

"Previous experience suggested that the quake would have triggered land slides in remote areas of Fiordland."

Several large quakes of up to 6.1 magnitude continued to rock the area more than 16 hours after the initial quake, and another of 5.4 hit the western North Island district of Taranaki.

More than 14,000 earthquakes are recorded annually in New Zealand, and the latest tremor was the biggest since February 2, 1931 when a 7.8 quake killed at least 256 people in the North Island city of Napier.

The biggest quake recorded in the country was of 8.2 magnitude in 1855 which wrecked much of what is now the capital city Wellington.

The chairwoman of the Greater Wellington Regional Council, Fran Wilde, warned the latest tremor should be seen as a wake-up call.

It could have caused "destruction on a massive scale" had it struck near heavily populated Wellington, she said.

"Luckily the earthquake occurred in a very remote area and caused little damage to buildings and infrastructure, but it was another timely reminder for residents in our region to be ready should this happen to us."


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