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The first wave of a tsunami, created by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile, is expected to reach the Chatham Islands by 7.05am.
The quake hit 325 kilometres southwest of Santiago, at a depth of 35 kilometres at 3:34 am local time (6.34pm NZ Time), the US Geological Survey reported.
A wave measuring 2.34 metres was recorded near Chile and Tsunami warnings were issued over a wide area.
The New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (CDEM) said areas of land could be threatened on the Chatham Islands and Banks Peninsula, while waves of less than 1 metre were likely for the entire east coast of New Zealand.
Canterbury CDEM group said residents in low lying areas of Banks Peninsula bays, where the tsunami was expected to arrive about 8.30am, should be prepared for an evacuation.
"People need to be ready to move to safety by 8am and may not be able to return for at least 24 hours."
People on coastal areas were asked to stay off beaches, avoid the water (including rivers and estuaries) and refer to media or their local Civil Defence authorities for updates.
On Banks Peninsula a camp ground at Okains Bay was evacuated, and in the Chathams guests at a hotel had been moved to higher ground.
The ministry asked that people avoid calling 111 for information, reserving that number for emergencies.
Estimates show the first wave reaching the east coast of the North Island by 8am ahead of the main centres of Wellington (8.25am), Christchurch (9.05am) and Auckland (10.22am).
"The first wave may arrive later and may not be the largest. Strong currents and unusual tidal effects may continue for several hours," the ministry said.
"Based on historical events it is expected that the greatest wave heights could occur between 6 and 12 hours after the initial arrivals."
The earthquake struck near the city of Concepcion in Chile, toppling buildings and collapsing bridges.
Interior Minister Edmundo Perez said 82 people were confirmed dead, and that more deaths were possible, but he didn't expect the toll to rise much higher. Telephone and power lines were down, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage close to the epicenter.
President Michele Bachelet said a huge wave hit the Juan Fernandez islands. Radio stations reported serious damage on the archipelago, where Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the 18th Century inspiring the novel Robinson Crusoe.
Bachelet, who flew over the worst-affected area, said residents were also being evacuated from coastal areas of Chile's remote Easter Island, a popular tourist destination in the Pacific famous for its towering Moai stone statues.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a Pacific-wide tsunami warning for countries in Latin America, and as far away as the US state of Hawaii as well as Japan, Russia, Philippines, Indonesia and the South Pacific. French Polynesia was also put on alert.
"Chile probably got the brunt force of the tsunami already. So probably the worst has already happened in Chile," said Victor Sardina, geophysicist at the warning center.
"The tsunami was pretty big too. We reported some places around 8 feet. And it's quite possible it would be higher in other areas," he added.
An earthquake of magnitude 8 or over can cause "tremendous damage," the USGS says. The quake that devastated Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 was measured as magnitude 7.0.
Bachelet urged people to stay calm and to remain at home to avoid road accidents. "With a quake of this size we undoubtedly can't rule out more deaths and probably injuries," she said.
Local television showed a building in flames in Concepcion, one of Chile's largest cities with around 670,000 inhabitants. Some residents looted pharmacies and a collapsed grains silo, hauling off bags of wheat, television images showed.
Broken glass and chunks of concrete and brick were strewn across roads and several strong aftershocks rattled jittery residents in the hours after the initial quake.
In the moments after the quake, people streamed onto the streets of the capital, hugging each other and crying.
"My house is completely destroyed, everything fell over ... it has been totally destroyed. Me and wife huddled in a corner and after hours they rescued us," said one elderly man in central Santiago.
There were blackouts in parts of Santiago and communications were still down in the area closest to the epicenter. Emergency officials said buildings in the historic quarters of two southern cities had been badly damaged and local radio said three hospitals had partially collapsed.
In 1960, Chile was hit by the world's biggest earthquake since records dating back to 1900. The 9.5 magnitude quake devastated the south-central city of Valdivia, killing 1,655 people and sending a tsunami which battered Easter Island 3,700 km off Chile's Pacific seaboard and continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.
Saturday's quake shook buildings as far away as Argentina's Andean provinces of Mendoza and San Juan. A series of strong aftershocks rocked Chile's coastal region from Valdivia in the south to Valparaiso, about 800 km to the north
Estimated wave arrival times
Chatham Islands (Kaingaroa)07. 22
Chatham Islands (Waitangi) 07.05
North Cape 08.54
Auckland (North Head) 10.22
Mt Maunganui 08.34
East Cape 07.54
New Plymouth 10.56
Marlborough Sounds (Tory Channel)08.38
Christchurch (New Brighton)09.05
Milford Sound 09.05
Stewart Island 09.21