Businesses in NZ's capital grind to halt after quake, limited damage

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 21, 2013 8:38 PM

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Wellington's central business district ground to a halt on Monday as bank trading desks were closed and offices were shuttered for safety inspections after a strong earthquake rattled New Zealand's capital city the previous day.

Workers were advised to stay away from New Zealand's third largest city as engineers conducted inspections on buildings which suffered minor structural damage after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake on Sunday in which four people were injured.

The harbor front of the city located at the southern tip of the country's North Island appeared to suffer the most damage, as a stretch of sea wall off the city's container port crumbled into the water.

Parts of the city were cordoned off, and streets in the business district were littered with shattered glass and pieces of broken concrete. Train service into the city remained canceled.

The few Wellingtonians who did arrive at the office were met with dislodged ceiling panels dangling above overturned filing cabinets and shelves.

Sunday's quake was one of the largest in the country since a shallow, 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the South Island's Canterbury region in 2011, resulting in nearly 200 deaths and leveling Christchurch, the country's second largest city.

"This was not as high energy as the Christchurch quakes," Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown said in a media conference.

"We have to be careful but it is not a matter of closing the city."

With a population of about 450,000, Wellington is the home to the country's Parliament, central bank, and government ministries.

The New Zealand dollar initially eased from a one-month high to hit a session low of $0.7891 in early Australasian trade, although it trimmed losses as investors acknowledged that the damage caused by the earthquake had been limited.

Government bond prices were flat in early trade, while prices on the benchmark NZX50 share market edged up 0.1 percent.

Market participants said trading desks in Wellington, including those of Bank of New Zealand and ANZ, were closed, with operations shifted to Auckland, the country's business hub, and Sydney.

"Corporate clients are out in Wellington, so liquidity is quite thin this morning," said Tim Kelleher, head of institutional FX sales at ASB, whose trading desk is located in Auckland.

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The bulk of trading by New Zealand banks, which are largely owned by Australian institutions, occurs in Auckland.

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand said its official interest rate review due on Thursday was unaffected by the earthquake. The central bank is widely expected to hold rates at a record low of 2.5 percent.

Earthquakes are common in New Zealand, whose two islands lie along the Australia-Pacific tectonic plate boundary.

The worst recorded quake in Wellington was in January 1855 when an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the open-ended Richter scale hit the fledgling settlement, lifting land levels by up to three meters and killing four settlers and an unspecified number of indigenous Maori.

(Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)