Wellington: There were harrowing near misses but Christchurch has emerged from a magnitude 5.7 quake with no deaths and little damage.
The quake – which was centred offshore some 31 kilometres deep and 15 kilometres east of Christchurch – was felt around the South Island, as well as in Wellington.
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5.7 earthquake hits near Christchurch
Part of a cliff face crumbles into the sea when a 5.7 magnitude earthquake hits near Christchurch, New Zealand.
The quake struck shortly after 1pm on Sunday, just a day after Prime Minister John Key visited the city he grew up in to highlight its rejuvenation and eight days before the fifth anniversary of a devastating 6.3 quake that killed 185 people.
Mr Key said it was good news that the quake resulted in no loss of life, partly the result of buildings in Christchurch being stronger now than they were five years ago.
However residents should be reassured that the quake was not a new event, but linked to previous seismic activity, he told New Zealand radio station Newstalk ZB.
The city's mayor Lianne Dalziel reiterated that infrastructure had held up well, with significant progress having been made since the devastation of the 2011 quake.
"What we have to take from this is our city is stronger than it was five years ago and it's better able to respond," she said.
Ms Dalziel said, however, that people would feel vulnerable.
"It really is a real set-back psychologically for the city," she said.
Earthquake minister Gerry Brownlee said Sunday's quake may have been "frightening" but that it was expected.
Just felt magnitude 5.7 EQ (while driving) in Christchurch where 80% of CBD is being rebuilt from 2010 & 2011 quakes pic.twitter.com/wBX7mtGNrQ— Michael Kerwin (@mkerwin111) February 14, 2016
Among those to escape unhurt were two kids from Taylors Mistake, on the city's south-eastern extremity, who were clipped by rocks that fell on a cliff face. Three other people were in a nearby cave at the time of the quake and ran for their lives, media reported.
'You just heard all the cliffs give way around us'
Emma Russell and her boyfriend were about 50 metres from a rockfall and say they are glad they decided against sitting closer to the edge.
"You just heard all the cliffs give way around us," they told The Press.
A magnitude 4.0 aftershock was recorded after 6pm and scientists say there is a 50 per cent chance of another quake above 5.
Sunday's earthquake has increased the likelihood Christchurch will be hit by another strong aftershock in the next 12 months.
New modelling completed by GNS Science shows there is a 63 per cent chance of another 5 to 5.9 magnitude earthquake hitting Christchurch within the next 12 months.
That figure was 49 per cent before Sunday's quake.
GNS Science duty seismologist Anna Kaiser said that percentage would drop quickly if there were no big quakes in the next week or so.
The chance of a 5 to 5.9 magnitude quake in the next week was 19 per cent and the likelihood of a 6 to 6.9 magnitude quake in the same time period was 2 per cent, she said.
Sunday's earthquake, in Pegasus Bay off New Brighton, was part of the 2010/2011 earthquake sequence and occurred in a similar location to the December 23, 2011, 5.9 magnitude quake.
"It does jolt you a bit but you just have to carry on," Ocean Cafe & Bar co-owner Julie-Anne Pritchard said after diners at her cafe watched a cliff fall into the sea.
"We thought this will be a wee short one but it wasn't," Ms Pritchard said.
Diners were in tears but some stayed and ate their meals.
She checked her home on Scarborough Hill and found possessions fallen from shelves.
"All the houses up there are just covered in dust," she said.
Emergency services geared up but have been scaled back.
Cliffs collapsed at Whitewash Heads near Taylors Mistake and at Godley Head, Christchurch City Council says.
There was traffic chaos as people rushed home to check on loved ones – water mains were burst and damaged mobile phone towers were being repaired.
Christchurch Hospital reported no increase in patient numbers and was checking minor damage to its own buildings.
The hospital said it would move mothers and babies from Burwood Hospital in the eastern suburbs as a precaution. Shopping malls were also cleared.