- Associated Press - Sunday, September 5, 2010

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — The powerful earthquake that smashed buildings, cracked roads and twisted rail lines around the New Zealand city of Christchurch also ripped a new fault line in the Earth’s surface, a geologist said Sunday.

At least 500 buildings, including 90 in the downtown area, have been designated as destroyed by the 7.1-magnitude quake that struck at 4:35 a.m. Saturday near this South Island city of 400,000 people. Most other buildings sustained only minor damage.

Only two serious injuries were reported from the quake as chimneys and walls of older buildings were reduced to rubble and crumbled to the ground. Prime Minister John Key said it was a miracle no one was killed.

Part of the reason the city escaped major injuries was because the quake happened before dawn, Mr. Key said.

“If this had happened five hours earlier or five hours later (when many more people were in the city), there would have been absolute carnage in terms of human life,” he told TV One News Sunday.

The quake cut power across the region, blocked roads with debris, and disrupted gas and water supplies, but Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said services were being restored Sunday.

Power was back to 90 percent of the city, and water supply had been restored for all but 15 percent to 20 percent of residents, he said. Portable toilets have been provided and tanks of fresh water placed around the city for residents.

Mr. Parker said it would take a long time to fully fix some core services such as water and sewage. “Our first priority is just people,” he said. “That’s our worry.”

Up to 90 extra police officers were flown into Christchurch to help, and troops were likely to join the recovery effort on Monday, he said.

As the recovery work gathered pace, forecasters warned strong winds would buffet the area, creating problems with flying debris.

WeatherWatch forecaster Philip Duncan said gale force winds of 40 mph and stronger “could cause serious issues for trees and buildings that were weakened in (Saturday’s) huge earthquake.”

Specialist engineering teams began assessing damage to all central city buildings on Sunday, said Paul Burns of the city’s search and rescue service. Officials said schools across the region would remain closed for the next two days to allow time to check whether they were safe.

Canterbury University geology Professor Mark Quigley said what “looks to us that it could be a new fault” had ripped across the ground and pushed some surface areas up. The quake was caused by the ongoing collision between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates, said Mr. Quigley, who is leading a team trying to pin down the source of the quake.

“One side of the earth has lurched to the right … up to 11 feet and in some places been thrust up,” Mr. Quigley told National Radio. 

“The long linear fracture on the earth’s surface does things like break apart houses, break apart roads. We went and saw two houses that were completely snapped in half by the earthquake,” he said.

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