At least two people died when a powerful earthquake struck New Zealand near the city of Christchurch, causing strong jolts felt more than 120 miles away and prompting a tsunami threat along the country’s east coast.
The quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey initially recorded as magnitude 7.4 but later raised to 7.8, struck just after midnight Sunday and was centered 93 kilometers (57 miles) northeast of Christchurch, on the country’s South Island.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said at least two people were killed, but provided no details at a news conference Monday morning in Wellington, the capital.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management said on its verified Twitter account that a tsunami threat covered all of New Zealand’s east coast, including Christchurch, Wellington and the Chatham Islands, and urged people in those areas to move to high ground or go inland.
The agency later said the first wave had arrived on the northeastern coast of the South Island, but didn’t say how tall it was. “The first wave may not be the largest. Waves may continue for several hours,” MCDEM said on Twitter. At 6.09 a.m. local time, the tsunami threat was downgraded for much of the east coast, although the agency continued to warn of unusually strong currents and unpredictable flows of water close to shore.
The USGS said the quake was at a depth of 23 kilometers. The quake was followed by a number of strong aftershocks.
New Zealand Police said one casualty had been reported at a collapsed property in Kaikoura, a coastal town on the country’s South Island. “Police are also trying to access a property at Mt Lyford, north of Christchurch, where a further casualty has been reported, which is believed to be a fatality,” it said.
In Wellington, 214 kilometers north of the quake’s epicenter, people were urged not to travel into the city as train and ferry services were suspended and some roads could be blocked. However, the city’s airport remained open following an inspection of the runway.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had just completed a visit to New Zealand, leaving for Oman hours before the earthquake struck.
New Zealand is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Ocean prone to seismic upheaval. In 2011, a 6.3-magnitude quake killed 185 people in Christchurch—most because of building failures—triggering a nationwide clampdown on unsafe properties.
When the latest quake hit, Christchurch resident Hannah Gin had just sat down in her living room to watch a replay of the recent All Blacks versus Italy rugby union match when her house started shaking, she told the Associated Press. Upstairs, her mother let out a scream.
Ms. Gin, a 24-year-old lifelong Christchurch resident, is accustomed to quakes, so she said she sat calmly and waited, figuring the rumbling would stop in a few seconds. Instead, the shaking just went on and on—for at least three minutes, according to the clock on her phone, she told AP by phone.
The quake was far less violent than the one that struck her city in 2011, she said, adding that there was no jarring up and down or side to side, just a long, rolling sensation. But it went on for much longer than the typical quakes that strike the area, she said.
“I could hear the sliding door sliding back and forth and we’ve got washing hanging up and I could see the washing moving,” Ms. Gin told AP. “It just kept going and going.” Her house, which was damaged in the 2011 quake, didn’t appear to have sustained any damage from the latest quake, she said.
The quake also knocked out New Zealand’s emergency call number, 111, for about 10 minutes, the AP reported, citing police.
Stephen Horrell runs a bed and breakfast five minutes outside of Kaikoura, 180 kilometers north of Christchurch, where much of the worst damage was reported.
He was asleep on the third floor of his establishment when the quake struck.
“There was a big jolt and there was rolling, he said. “It was so strong that when I tried to get out of bed it just rolled you over. It was impossible to stand.
“We just started grabbing stuff. Blankets, some food, our phones. But there was no power and so no light. It’s amazing what you can’t find when there is absolutely no light.”
Mr. Horrell and some of his neighbors drove up a hill near the property and waited until sunrise before moving on.
In Wellington, 214 kilometers north of the quake’s epicenter, power was knocked out in some places, and some windows were smashed and some chimneys collapsed, the AP reported. It caused items to fall from shelves and windows to break in Wellington, and forced hundreds of people on to the streets as hotels were evacuated, AP said.
“You couldn’t really stand up, you just had to force yourself up from the carpet and try to move along to get hold of the doorway,” said Christine Hay, who runs the Bella Vista Motel in Wellington, a few minutes’ drive from the central business district. Three of the motel’s 16 units were unlet prior to the quake, but quickly filled with guests who had fled high-rise accommodation closer to the city, she said.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said there was no tsunami threat to the country.
Write to David Winning at email@example.com and Lucy Craymer at WSJ