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story.lead_photo.caption The magnitude-7.8 earthquake that struck New Zealand on Monday damaged this historic church in Waiau. - Photo by AP / MIKE SCOTT

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- New Zealand today began a rescue operation involving hundreds of tourists and residents who remain stranded in the coastal town of Kaikoura after an earthquake cut off train and vehicle access.

Photo by MARK MITCHELL / AP
A landslide blocks a highway and the main railway line north of Kaikoura, New Zealand, on Monday. About 1,000 people remained stranded after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake knocked out water supplies and caused landslides that cut off access to the coastal town.

The defense force said it had started ferrying people out by military helicopter and that a navy ship from Auckland was due to arrive in the area Wednesday morning.

The magnitude-7.8 quake struck the South Island just after midnight. It left two people dead and triggered a small tsunami. It also brought down rocks and mud that swept across highways and cracked apart roads.

Home to about 2,000 people, Kaikoura is a popular destination for travelers taking part in whale-watching expeditions or wanting a stopover with mountain views. But the quake knocked out water supplies and sewage systems and left people with no easy way out.

"From all directions, Kaikoura has essentially been isolated," said Air Commodore Darryn Webb, the acting commander of New Zealand's Joint Forces. "There's a real imperative to support the town because it can't support itself."

Webb said the military was using four NH90 helicopters today that could each transport about 18 people out of the town at a time. He said the ship could pick up hundreds of people if weather conditions allowed.

"We're going to get as many people and belongings out as quickly as we can," Webb said.

He said the operation could take several days and that, if needed, a C-130 military transport plane could drop fuel, water, food and other supplies to the town. He said about 5 metric tons of supplies were ready to be delivered from Christchurch.

Sarah Stuart-Black, director of the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, said the priority was transporting out people with health issues or with international flights booked. She said 34 people had been airlifted out by noon today.

She said the community was rallying to help the tourists.

"It's fantastic that some of the locals in Kaikoura have taken in tourists into their own homes," she said.

Elsewhere, many people returned to work in the capital, Wellington, after the quake shut down much of the central city on Monday. But some buildings remained closed and heavy rain and flooding compounded the difficulties for others.

And aftershocks continued to rock New Zealand, rattling the nerves of exhausted residents. The country was largely spared the devastation it saw in 2011 when an earthquake struck the city of Christchurch and killed 185 people. That quake was one of New Zealand's worst disasters, causing an estimated $25 billion in damage.

Monday's quake caused damage in Wellington, the capital, and was also strongly felt in Christchurch. Residents said the shaking went on for about three minutes.

Police said one person died in Kaikoura and another in Mount Lyford, a nearby ski resort. Several other people suffered minor injuries in Kaikoura, police spokesman Rachel Purdom said.

Prime Minister John Key, after flying over the destruction in Kaikoura by helicopter as aftershocks kicked up dust from the landslides below, toured the area and met with locals. He estimated the cleanup effort would run into the billions and said clearing the debris and blocked roads could take months.

Three cows whose predicament captured the interest of people around the world after they became stranded on a small island of grass in an area ripped apart by the quake were rescued. The Newshub news service reported a farmer and some helpers dug a track to them and brought them out.

Police, meanwhile, stepped up their patrols after receiving several reports of burglaries in homes and businesses that had been evacuated because of the quake.

New Zealand, with a population of 4.7 million, sits on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes are common.

The location of Monday's quake largely helps explain why the damage was so minimal compared with the 2011 temblor, said Mark Quigley, associate professor of active tectonics at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The 2011 quake was located almost directly beneath Christchurch, meaning tens of thousands of people were exposed to the most violent shaking at the epicenter. Monday's quake was centered in a rural area that is home to just a few thousand people.

The quake was centered 57 miles northeast of Christchurch at a depth of 14 miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The survey initially estimated it had a magnitude of 7.4 before revising it to 7.8.

Information for this article was contributed by Kristen Gelineau of The Associated Press.

A Section on 11/15/2016

Print Headline: New Zealand begins rescue effort

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