A Kaikoura mother of three yesterday described the ''absolutely terrifying'' moments when a ''massive'' 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck.

Former Dunedin woman Susanne Dunnett lives on the outskirts of Kaikoura with her children and husband Tom and was in bed when the quake struck just after midnight yesterday.

The shaking was ''absolutely terrifying'' and her first thoughts were to check on her children, aged 2, 4 and 6.

''It was massive. You couldn't stand up,'' she said.

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The initial quake was just the start of their ordeal, as the ground continued to shake with severe aftershocks all through yesterday.

Because their home was seven minutes' drive from Kaikoura and further above sea level than the town, friends arrived during the night to escape the tsunami risk.

She did not get much sleep.

''It was a very long, very scary night.''

Their house was structurally fine, but inside it was a mess, with furniture fallen over, books toppled off shelves and drawers shaken loose.

The family's power and telephone were knocked out by the quake and they had to drive into Kaikoura to contact loved ones to let them know they were unharmed.

They saw a lot of damage on the way into town, including cracks in the road and damage to buildings.