Gisborne was a shattered city early today, its main shopping centre a mix of chaos and ruin.
At least six buildings in the central shopping area had serious damage. Two were partially collapsed.
Police locked down the entire central area in a series of road blocks while they worked carefully through the worst-damaged buildings checking for people who may have been trapped or killed in the 6.8 quake.
There was optimism from searchers that no one had suffered more than minor injuries.
The time the quake hit, in a peak shopping hour, and its severity makes the absence of human tragedy the best that rescue workers could hope for.
Shattered glass filled the gutters and ruined awnings, and shop fronts had collapsed across footpaths.
Whitcoulls and the Bernina sewing centre were hit badly, and neighbouring three-storey buildings collapsed through their ceilings.
Amidst the ruin, Gisborne mayor Meng Foon surveyed the damage, describing the quake as "not the Christmas present we ordered".
Mr Foon appeared stunned, standing rooted to the spot on Gladstone Rd surveying the damage at the Bernina store.
"Thank God that there is no loss of life," he said.
"I'm absolutely relieved that nobody has been hurt."
The mayor had high praise for police, who quickly shut down the centre, preventing the possibility curious onlookers would become looters.
Mr Foon said two households outside the centre had suffered such extensive damage the occupants needed to be rehoused overnight.
The council motorcamp had been made available, and police had arranged for a marae to take in those affected.
Mr Foon said he had received calls of support from Prime Minister Helen Clark and Civil Defence Minister Rick Barker wanting an assessment of the damage and offering any help required.
Inspector Waata Shepherd said all police in Gisborne and surrounding areas had been re-called to duty to deal with the aftermath of the quake in association with Civil Defence.
Sixteen fires had been extinguished since the quake struck.
To walk the main street early today was to witness Gisborne's lucky escape.
The power of the quake was significant but not so great that it tore at the city. Rather Gisborne has been left shaken and badly bruised.
Almost every shop in the central area faces a huge clean up, many have broken windows and stock litters the floors in most, from paint in one store to books in another.
Even those buildings that survived the impact intact show the force with which the quake struck.
* David Fisher is an award-winning Herald on Sunday writer.