WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The first U.S. warship to visit New Zealand in more than 30 years was traveling toward a small coastal town on Wednesday to help in the evacuation of hundreds of stranded tourists and residents.
The USS Sampson had been due in Auckland but changed course to help those stuck in Kaikoura after a powerful earthquake on Monday cut off train and vehicle access to the town. The magnitude 7.8 quake left two people dead, triggered a small tsunami, and brought down rocks and mud that swept across highways.
New Zealand’s military has been using large helicopters to evacuate about 200 people so far as part of a major rescue operation in Kaikoura. They’ve also been bringing in supplies of water, food and fuel.
The American destroyer has two helicopters which it has offered to deploy. U.S. officials said they were not yet sure when the ship would arrive.
Home to about 2,000 residents, Kaikoura is a popular destination for travelers taking part in whale-watching expeditions or wanting a stopover with mountain views. But the quake knocked out water supplies and sewer systems and left people with no easy way out.
The visit by the U.S. ship is significant because it ends a three-decade-old military stalemate between the countries that was triggered when New Zealand banned nuclear warships. Although the U.S. has a policy of neither confirming nor denying if its military ships are nuclear powered or armed, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key has said he’s satisfied the Sampson doesn’t have nuclear capabilities.
President-elect Donald Trump called Key on Wednesday to pass on his sympathies over the quake. Key’s office described the conversation as “very warm and cordial.” Trump had tried to get in touch earlier in the week but Key had missed the call in the confusion after the quake.
Key traveled by helicopter to Kaikoura on Wednesday. While hovering over a large landslide, he expressed surprise at the amount of debris.
“Look at this road here, this is really stuffed and there’s thousands of meters (yards) of it,” Key said. “I just don’t see how you can ever repair that bit of road. The whole mountain has moved over.”
New Zealand officials say that getting its highways repaired is likely to cost billions of dollars and take months to complete.
In the capital, Wellington, several streets remained cordoned off after engineers determined that a nine-story office building was in danger of collapsing.
Brendan Nally, the regional commander for the New Zealand Fire Service, said engineers were completing an inspection of the building Tuesday when they found a major vertical beam had failed above the fifth floor.
Nearby buildings have been evacuated, including the national headquarters for the Red Cross, the Thai Embassy, the headquarters for New Zealand Rugby and an Anglican cathedral.
And three cows were rescued after they had become stranded on a small island of grass in an area that was ripped apart by the quake. The predicament of the cows had attracted the interest of people around the world.
Farmer Derrick Millton told the Newshub news service how he and other volunteers had rescued the cows.
“We cut a track with shovels and encouraged them down. They’re very quiet cattle so it wasn’t very hard to do,” he said.