22 February 2011

Updates from the New Zealand Earthquake

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city, killing at least 17 people. Updates from Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones staffers:

0524 GMT: New Zealand’s prime minister, on TV1, says that at least 65 have died.

0518 GMT: New Zealand’s government confirms 17 dead and says it expects this number to rise.

0448 GMT: Moody’s Investors Service said its banking, insurance and sovereign analysts were all looking into the situation in New Zealand. Moody’s has a Aaa rating on the country with a stable outlook. Fitch, which has an AA+ rating, said that while the earthquake alone won’t push New Zealand’s rating lower, the country still has risks ahead.

“The ratings are on negative outlook already, which is driven by that economy’s imbalances,” said Andrew Colquhoun, head of Asia-Pacific sovereign debt at Fitch Ratings, citing the country’s current account deficit and high debt levels. New Zealand’s current-account deficit reached 5.93 billion New Zealand dollars (US$4.48 billion) in the year to September.

A spokesman for Standard & Poor’s, which has a AA+ rating and negative outlook, said the firm was also looking at the New Zealand developments closely.

0431 GMT: New Zealand television reports that the epicenter of the earthquake was at Lyttelton, about 10 kilometers from Christchurch. A reporter in Christchurch says the damage is more significant than last September’s earthquake, with the city being hit by aftershocks. Another reporter describes the earthquake as like being on a skateboard. Aerial footage shows the spire of Christchurch’s cathedral destroyed, people waiting on the roof of a tall building waiting to be rescued and rescuers trying to smash their way into buildings through the collapsed roof of another building.

0424 GMT: New Zealand companies listed in Australia are mostly weaker as a result of the massive earthquake and aftershocks that hit Christchurch. Insurer Tower Ltd., (TWR.AU) is down 3.7% at A$1.435 after hitting A$1.415. Telecom NZ (TEL.AU) is down 2.5% at A$1.59 after hitting A$1.57. But Fletcher Building (FBU.AU) is up 1.8% at A$6.36 after running up to A$6.37 in anticipation of a major rebuilding effort in Christchurch, which is still recovering from a quake in September. Australian companies with NZ exposure are underperforming, with major banks down 1.2%-1.5% and insurers down 2.3%-2.5%.

0412 GMT: Television pictures show a building on fire. A helicopter hovers overhead, dumping water from a large bucket underneath. Thick black clouds of smoke pour out of the building. New Zealand television reports that Christchurch has run out of ambulances to transport the injured to hospital. It also reports that people are being asked to text message friends and relatives instead of calling them to relieve congestion on the mobile phone network.

0401 GMT: Deputy Prime Minister Bill English tells a media conference that the New Zealand government is “gearing up for something larger, more devastating” than the earthquake that hit Christchurch in September last year. Civil Defence Minister John Carter tells the same press conference that “as far as we’re aware” the damage from the earthquake is focused on the city of Christchurch. Television pictures show debris from offices littering streets. Amateur recorded footage is also being televised showing part of a building collapsing onto cars and the dusty aftermath of a rock slide behind buildings.

0347 GMT: New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Bill English tells a televised press conference that Prime Minister John Key is travelling to Christchurch. English says Australia has offered to send search and rescue teams and New Zealand has accepted. He says the Christchurch mayor has declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile, New Zealand television reports that Christchurch airport is closed. Television pictures show a tall crane being used to rescue people trapped on the 17th floor of a tall building after a stairwell collapsed. Pictures also show roads split and cracked and cars crushed by rubble.

0332 GMT: The roof of the offices of Christchurch’s newspaper, The Press, has collapsed, according to Sky television, with people trapped inside waiting to be rescued. Television pictures are showing emergency services workers rescuing bloodied people from another building. The city’s hospital has reopened after earlier being evacuated. Triage centers have been opened in the city. Private vehicles are being used to take people to hospital. It’s been reported that bodies have been removed from the YHA hostel.

– Contributions by Gavin Lower and David Rogers

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