Friday, February 25, 2011

The death toll continued to rise

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand—The death toll continued to rise Friday with numerous foreigners now thought to be among the dead, three days after a massive earthquake rocked New Zealand's second largest city.

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Rescuers at the CTV building in Christchurch. Many people are still unaccounted for in the quake's aftermath.

Aftershocks continue to shake the area, with at least six tremors felt in the city Friday from 3.3 to 4.4 in magnitude. International and local rescue teams have joined forces to search for the more than 200 people still missing, but hope of finding survivors is fading as rescuers haven't found anyone alive in the past 48 hours.

Police said many of the missing were expected to be among the 113 bodies that have been recovered. Less than a dozen people have so far been identified by authorities, though it is expected many of the unidentified bodies will be those of foreign nationals.

"This is not just New Zealand's tragedy, it is a tragedy that will touch many families around the world," said Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully.

Rescue workers using dogs, sensitive listening equipment and cameras are searching for survivors as police enforce restrictions on entering the city's devastated historic downtown area. A 6 p.m. curfew remains in place to prevent looting.

New Zealand was rocked early Thursday by several major aftershocks that came in the wake of Tuesday's massive 6.3-magnitude earthquake in the city of Christchurch, where hundreds remain missing. Geoff Rogow has the latest.

Aftershocks and fears that 26-storey Grand Chancellor Hotel could collapse at any moment has complicated the recovery and played on frazzled nerves. Engineers estimated the building moved 10 feet in 10 minutes at one point more than a day after the 6.3-magnitude quake.

Fourteen employees of financial-services concern Pyne Gould Corp. are believed trapped in the Pyne Gould Guinness office building downtown, while a further 120 people are believed to have perished in the Canterbury Television building where concerns about the Grand Chancellor hampered recovery efforts.

Businesses and shops reopening has begun to restore some normality in outlying suburbs and surrounding towns. The South Island's largest port, Lyttelton, is expected to be reopened Saturday with full operations to resume within a week allowing for exports of coal, pine wood and dairy products from the South Island.

"We have been working really hard to get things up and running," said Simon Munt and official at Lyttelton Port Co.

But the nearby township closer to the earthquake's epicenter is likely to remain closed for some time.

"Most of the buildings are going to have to be demolished because nobody is going to rebuild in brick, because you won't be able to insure it," said Lois Ogilvie, 50, the owner of the Volcano Café and Lava Bar in the center of town.

Interactive Map

See a map of the quake's epicenter, damage and other key spots.


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Residents are fleeing the area amid fears that another major quake could hit at any time. Lyttelton resident Meredith Morton, 36, sent her two sons to stay with their father in North Canterbury as she begins the clean up.

"It's nice not to be worrying about them in the quakes," said Ms. Morton.

As residents struggle to comprehend the scale of the disaster, estimates of the cost of the damage have begun. Prime Minister John Key said that the damage bill will be more than four billion New Zealand dollars (US$3 billion), and that he couldn't rule out a J.P. Morgan estimate of NZ$16 billion.

The deadly earthquake has led financial markets to price in a 0.25 percentage point interest-rate cut by New Zealand's central bank at its March 10 policy-review meeting, with analysts saying the bank should ease monetary policy even more to help the economy cope with the shock.

That prospect would mark a stark shift in policy expectations, reflecting the worsening outlook for New Zealand's economy, which was already battling to recover from a deep recession triggered by the global financial crisis.

"At a time of national crisis, when the underlying economy is already proving frustratingly weak, a rate cut would potentially be very helpful to the recovery of the economy. We expect the RBNZ to deliver a 50 basis point rate cut at the March 10 meeting, if not sooner," said ASB Economist Jane Turner.

Australia—New Zealand's largest trading partner—is also starting to estimate damages to its businesses in New Zealand, as the two countries have long had close economic and political ties.

Economists said Australian exports to New Zealand could take a short-term hit if the earthquake causes the New Zealand economy to contract in the quarter ending in March, and possibly the following quarter.

The short-term drain on exports, however, will likely be offset by increased demand for raw materials once rebuilding starts.

Christchurch sits at the head of the fertile Canterbury plain region of New Zealand's South Island. The city, with a population of about 377,000, is a commercial center in the agricultural and tourism-dependent region and accounts for about 15% of the nation's economy.

The U.S. Geological Survey issued a statement saying the quake was part of the "aftershock sequence" from September's earthquake.

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