New Zealand earthquake AP 4.9.2010
Rubble pile up outside a restaurant in central Christchurch, New Zealand, following a 7.1 earthquake, September 4, 2010 Photo by AP
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Aftershocks rocked New Zealand's garden city, Christchurch, Saturday as it counted the cost of the most devastating earthquake to hit the country in nearly 80 years.

A state of emergency was declared after the city centre was extensively damaged by the magnitude-7.1 tremor, which flattened buildings, ripped up roads, and cut power, water and sewage connections.

The quake, centered 40 kilometers west of the city and only 10 kilometers underground, caused the most extensive damage in a major population centre since the North Island city of Napier was virtually destroyed in 1931.

More than 250 people died in the Napier quake, but Christchurch - the second-largest city of one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries - escaped mass casualties because Saturday's tremor struck at 4:35 am (1635 GMT Friday) when most people were still asleep.

Two men were seriously injured by falling debris, but the only reported death was a heart attack victim. Many people survived although their homes crumbled around them, toppling brick walls and chimneys as they lay in bed.

Police closed the city's central business district, where streets were blocked by rubble from the collapsed facades of old office buildings, and kept sightseers away because of the threat of further collapses.

Search teams with sniffer dogs combed wrecked buildings in the city centre, where 8,000 residents live in apartments, while engineers inspected damaged properties.

Residents were allowed to stay, but police imposed a nighttime curfew, and central city blocks were expected to remain cordoned off to outsiders at least until Monday.

More than 20 aftershocks of magnitude 4 or more shook the city Saturday, the biggest measuring 5.3.

With weather forecasters predicting gale-force winds and temperatures dropping to 4 degrees Celsius overnight, welfare centers were set up in the suburbs for residents whose houses were so badly damaged that they could not go home.

Officials urged residents to save water and refrain from flushing toilets as streets in some areas remained under water contaminated with sewage.

Power was reported to be restored to about 80 per cent of the city and suburbs before nightfall, but utility companies said it could be days before some rural areas would be reconnected.

There was considerable damage to small towns and communities throughout the mainly rural Canterbury province, which has a population of more than 550,000.

Officials told residents of Kaiapoi, 19 kilometers north of Christchurch, to leave the town because it would be days before their water, power and sewage services could be restored.

There were more problems as utility companies moved to restore services. Fire erupted in one central Christchurch building, apparently sparked by a gas leak when power was reconnected.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said the damage to his city of nearly 400,000 people was "absolutely immense" and appealed for help from the army and government funds to rebuild damaged areas.

Prime Minister John Key, who flew into the city to inspect the damage, said the cost of reconstruction would run into billions of dollars, and promised, "We're not going to let Christchurch suffer this disaster on its own."

Christchurch international airport, which was closed for runway inspection after the quake, reopened in the afternoon, but airlines said it would be Sunday before a backlog of passengers booked to fly out of the city was cleared.

All bus services were suspended in the city as meter-deep crevasses appeared in roads, and the South Island rail network was shut down because tracks buckled.