Fissures run along a road by the Centre Port in Wellington, Monday, November 14, 2016, after a major earthquake struck New Zealand's south Island early Monday. A powerful earthquake struck in a mostly rural area close to the city of Christchurch but appeared to be more strongly felt in the capital, Wellington, more than 200 Km (120 miles) away. (Ross Setford/SNPA via AP)
Fissures appear on a street in Wellington after the earthquake © AP
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A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck New Zealand early on Monday causing widespread damage and prompting authorities to issue a tsunami warning to coastal communities.

John Key, New Zealand’s prime minister, said at least two people had died following the earthquake.

“We don’t have any indications at the moment to believe it will rise, but we can’t rule that out,” said Mr Key in Wellington, adding that details of the casualties were still being confirmed.

A series of powerful aftershocks followed later in the day, including a 6.3-magnitude quake which struck north of the town of Cheviot in Canterbury. Emergency services did not report any further casualties.

Tens of thousands of people fled their homes to take shelter on higher ground following the tsunami warning, with New Zealand authorities reporting that the first tsunami waves were generated within two hours of the earthquake. This warning was later downgraded for most areas. The Ministry for Civil Defence retained a marine and beach threat from large waves from Napier to north Dunedin, Cook Straight coastal areas and The Chatham Islands.

After reviewing the damage by helicopter, Mr Key told Radio New Zealand it would likely cost a “couple of billion dollars” to repair the damage caused by the earthquake. He has now cancelled a planned trip to Argentina this week.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 14: People wait in Te Aro Park after being evacuated from nearby buildings following an earthquake on November 14, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. The 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck 20km south-east of Hanmer Springs at 12.02am and triggered tsunami warnings for many coastal areas. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Residents were evacuated to a park in Wellington after the eartquake struck © Getty

The New Zealand dollar fell to its lowest level against the US dollar in about a month following the quake. The kiwi fell to 70.88 US cents at 8am in Wellington, from 71.26 cents in late New York trading on Friday.

“The whole house rolled like a serpent and some things smashed, the power went out,” a woman, who gave her name as Elizabeth, told Radio New Zealand from her home in Takaka, near the top of the South Island.

City authorities in Wellington, the country’s capital, urged people who work in the city centre to stay at home on Monday because of damage to buildings. There was gridlock on the roads to Mount Victoria, a hill with a lookout overlooking the low-lying coastal city.

“I’m just sort of parked by the side of the road and I think people are trying to go to sleep the same as I am,” Wellington resident Howard Warner told Reuters after evacuating his seaside house.

map: New Zealand earthquake

Richard Maclean, a spokesman for the Wellington City Council, said there was structural damage to several buildings. “We’ve got reports of broken water pipes and lots and lots of things off desks and shelves,” he told Radio New Zealand. Other residents reported glass had fallen from buildings into the streets and hotels and apartment buildings had been evacuated.

A spokeswoman for the city council of Christchurch, where tsunami sirens rent the air, said its “emergency operations centre” was active.

Just over five year ago, Christchurch suffered a devastating earthquake which claimed 185 lives and left the city in ruins. The city is in the middle of a NZ$40bn programme to rebuild the centre and more than 10,000 houses which were destroyed following the February 2011 quake and an earlier tremor in September 2010.

New Zealand sits on the “Ring of Fire”, a 40,000km-long basin in the Pacific Ocean where nine out of ten of the world’s earthquakes occur.

New Zealand’s GeoNet survey measured Monday’s main earthquake at magnitude 7.5 while the US geological survey said it was a 7.8.

A tsunami warning alert is seen on a notice board above State Highway 1 in Wellington early on November 14, 2016 following an earthquake centred some 90 kilometres (57 miles) north of New Zealand's South Island city of Christchurch. A powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked New Zealand early November 14, the US Geological Survey said, prompting a tsunami warning and knocking out power and phone services in many parts of the country. / AFP PHOTO / Marty MelvilleMARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images
A tsunami warning alerts drivers on a motorway near Wellington © AFP

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