A powerful 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck much of New Zealand's South Island early Saturday. No tsunami alert was issued and there were no reports of injuries, but looters broke into some damaged shops in Christchurch, police said.
The quake, which hit 19 miles (30 kilometers) west of the southern city of Christchurch, shook a wide area with some residents saying buildings had collapsed and power was severed.
Christchurch police reported road damage in parts of the city of 400,000 people, with a series of sharp aftershocks rocking the area. Police officers cordoned off some streets where rubble was strewn about.
"There is considerable damage in the central city and we've also had reports of looting, just shop windows broken and easy picking of displays," Police inspector Mike Coleman told New Zealand's National Radio. "It's very unsafe to be out and about."
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said the "sharp, vicious earthquake has caused significant damage in parts of the city ... with walls collapsed that have fallen into the streets."
Chimneys and walls had fallen from older buildings, with roads blocked, traffic lights out and power, gas and water supplies disrupted, he said.
"Roads have subsided where water mains have broken and a lot of people evacuated in panic from seaside areas for fear of a tsunami," she said, adding that "there is quite significant damage, really, with reports that some people were trapped in damaged houses."
Suburban dweller Mark O'Connell said his house was full of smashed glass, food tossed from shelves, with sets of drawers, TVs and computers tipped over.
"She was a beauty, we were thrown from wall to wall as we tried to escape down the stairs to get to safety," he told the AP. "It was pitch black (with the power cut) and we walked through smashed glass everywhere on the floor."
The quake hit at 4:35 a.m. (1635 GMT) shaking thousands of residents awake, New Zealand's National Radio reported.
Resident Colleen Simpson said panicked residents ran into the street in their pajamas. Some buildings had collapsed, there was no power, and the mobile telephone network had failed.
"Oh my God. There is a row of shops completely demolished right in front of me," Simpson told the Stuff news Web site.
Another person from Christchurch, Kevin O'Hanlon, said the jolt was extremely powerful.
"I was awake to go to work and then just heard this massive noise and 'boom,' it was like the house got hit. It just started shaking. I've never felt anything like it," he told the news Web site.
Christchurch International Airport was closed after the quake as a precaution, as experts prepared to check the runways and airport terminals, a spokesman said.
The earthquake was 21 miles (33 kilometers) below the Earth's surface, the geological agency GNS Science said. Radio reports said items were tossed from store shelves and roof tiles cracked by the strong temblor.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said "no destructive widespread tsunami threat existed, based on historical earthquake and tsunami data."
New Zealand sits above an area of the Earth's crust where two tectonic plates collide. The country records more than 14,000 earthquakes a year — but only about 150 are felt by residents. Fewer than 10 a year do any damage.