By Lincoln Feast
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand emergency services and defense personnel began evacuating hundreds of tourists and residents from the South Island town of Kaikoura on Tuesday, a day after a powerful earthquake hit the region, killing two people.
The 7.8-magnitude tremor, which struck just after midnight on Sunday, destroyed historic farm homesteads, sent glass and masonry toppling from high rises in the capital Wellington and cut road and rail links throughout the northeast of the South Island.
Kaikoura, a popular base for whale-watching about 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Christchurch and near the epicenter, was completely cut off by massive landslips.
Four defense force helicopters were flying into the town on Tuesday morning and the Navy's multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury was heading to the area, Air Commander Darryn Webb, the acting commander of New Zealand joint forces, told TVNZ.
"The priority today is the airlift operation," he said. "We're looking to do as many flights as we can out of Kaikoura today ... around about four flights, to move approximately 200 of those tourists and residents south."
Around 1,200 tourists were stranded in the town, officials said.
Gale-force winds and rain were hampering recovery efforts, and hundreds of aftershocks continued to rock the region.
Prime Minister John Key flew over Kaikoura on Monday and described the landslips in the mountainous area as "just horrendous". The repair bill was likely to run into billions of dollars, he said.
Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said restoring water supplies and getting food into Kaikoura were the main priorities, while clearing road access would take some time.
"The road north is going to be quite a challenge for quite some time," he said.
Hundreds of homes remained without power and telecommunications, with huge cracks in roads, land slips and other damage to infrastructure making it hard to reach the worst-affected areas.
Workers returned to office buildings in Wellington's business district, which was closed off on Monday while the city council assessed the risk to buildings, several of which were damaged by the tremor. Many businesses told staff to work from home.
Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand's ruggedly beautiful South Island, is still recovering from the 6.3 quake in 2011 that killed 185 people.
New Zealand's Geonet measured Monday's main quake at magnitude 7.5, while the U.S. Geological Survey put it at 7.8.
Seismologists said the quake actually appeared to be two near simultaneous tremors which shook much of the country for around two minutes.
New Zealand lies in the seismically active "Ring of Fire", a 40,000-km arc of volcanoes and oceanic trenches that encircles much of the Pacific Ocean. Around 90 percent of the world's earthquakes occur in this region.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)