Prince William Visits New Zealand Quake Zone

March 17, 2011 - 6:03 AM

Prince William

Prince William tours earthquake-damaged Christchurch, New Zealand, on Thursday, March 17, 2011. (AP Photo/NZPA, Pool)

Wellington, New Zealand (AP) - Prince William said Thursday the earthquake damage to the New Zealand city of Christchurch was "unbelievable" as the British royal began a tour of disaster zones in New Zealand and Australia.

William was escorted around a section of downtown Christchurch that bore the brunt of the 6.3 magnitude quake struck Feb. 22, toppling or badly damaging thousands of buildings and killing at least 166 people.

"The scale of it is unbelievable," the prince said while in Latimer Square, which was an emergency medical depot immediately after the quake.

He visited the city's iconic cathedral nearby, where he was briefed by emergency services workers dressed in coveralls about the effort to stabilize and repair the Anglican church's tower that collapsed in the quake.

The government has said almost a third of buildings in the downtown area may be demolished as a result of damage caused by the quake, the cost of which is estimated at $11 billion (New Zealand dollars 15 billion).

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said William had been strongly affected by what he had seen.

"He's been exposed to some pretty gritty things in his life given his career path," Parker said. "He's taken this in his stride."

William is visiting New Zealand and Australia on behalf of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, to offer condolences for the earthquake and a flooding disaster that affected Australia earlier this year.

"I'm not what you would call a royalist, but I'm just glad that someone in his shoes decided to come down here," onlooker James Sykes said Thursday. "It shows solidarity with the people."

In New Zealand, William is also to meet with the families of 29 men killed in an explosion at the Pike River coal mine in November. On Saturday, he is to visit parts of Australia that suffered severe flooding earlier this year.

Earlier Thursday, New Zealand's Finance Minister Bill English said the earthquake would extend the budget deficit about $3.6 billion (NZ$5 billion) this year, raising debt to $12 billion (NZ$16 billion), or 8 percent of gross domestic product, the government said Thursday.

English said New Zealand's economy had the capacity to absorb the impact of the quake. The cost would be borne through borrowing and by diverting capital spending to Christchurch, not by raising taxes or cutting spending.