Christchurch earthquake death toll rises; still expected to reach 200


The confirmed death toll from the Christchurch earthquake rose to 154 overnight and is still expected to reach more than 200. The city continues to be rocked by aftershocks, including one with a magnitude of 3.9 last night and another of 3.7 at 7.40am local time this morning.

Mayor Bob Parker this morning asked residents not to drive into the embattled central city area to share in the two minutes silence for those who have lost their lives, those who are missing, and the hundreds who are mourning family and friends. It is scheduled for 12.51 today, one week after the quake hit. He said roads were congested because of the cordon around the most devastated blocks and engineers and construction workers needed to be able to work on them.

“Don’t drive into the central city. Don’t do things like that today.”

Mr Parker said the silence could be observed by anyone doing anything and that drivers could just pull over to the side of the road. The important thing was “that we all stand together as one whoever we are, whatever place we are in.”

Prime Minister John Keys is expected to observe the silence at Christchurch Art Gallery. A cathedral service will be held in Auckland to honor the dead and missing and Wellington will toll muffled bells in mourning for what Mr Keys has said might be “New Zealand’s single most tragic event.”

Meanwhile a leading economic forecaster, New Zealand’s Institute of Economic Research, has revised estimates for the nation’s growth down from 2.3 per cent to 0.3 per cent this year, deferring the nation’s economic recovery. The institute said half of that drop is due to the earthquake and rest is the result of underlying weakness in the economy, compounded by a spike in food and fuel prices.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said he hoped many local businesses would be able to relocate to other parts of Christchurch during the rebuild and that the only question was how long this would take.

Detailed evaluation by urban search and rescue structural engineers has found that the leaning Hotel Grand Chancellor building initially tilted because critical structural elements at ground level failed, emergency services reported this morning. The building had been cordoned off because it was thought too unsafe for rescue workers but further work revealed that only the area directly in front of the building remained a risk.

Building evaluation manager Steve McCarthy said the plan to stabilise the hotel included pouring concrete into boxed forms on either side of the foyer wall, propping beams and providing steel jacketing around damaged walls.

“It is difficult to assess the building’s capacity to resist aftershocks, but we do know that the building’s structure is stable and it’s resisted several strong aftershocks without any signs of furthermovement,” Mr McCarthy said.

“It will take around three weeks to complete the full programme of work.”

Eighty per cent of CBD buildings have now been searched but three remain impossible to access, fire service operations manager Jim Stuart-Black said this morning. He said it was hoped that with 24 hours “we can finish searching the area arond the [Grand Chancellor] hotel and go into the hotel itself”.

Sixty-five households in the suburb of Bowenvale were evacuated overnight because of fears over falling boulders, but the 200 households evacuated the day before at Clifton Hill and surrounding suburbs have been permitted to return home.

Police are expected to release the latest names of the dead later today.

Power is back to 85 per cent of the city and water to 65 per cent

Police are expected to release the latest names of the dead later today.