A strong earthquake has hit the east coast of New Zealand, causing power cuts and damage to buildings but no casualties.

The tremor, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, struck at 8.55pm (7.55am GMT). It was centred 30 miles (48km) off the coast, just south east of the city of Gisborne on the country's north island.

Authorities said Gisborne had borne the brunt of the quake, but damage appeared to be largely superficial.

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"There's been damage to power, gas and water supplies and there's been intermittent phone contact," said Vince Cholewa, a spokesman for the national civil defence.

"We've been told that three buildings have collapsed, but it's been confirmed there was nobody in them and there are no reports of any injuries there."

Most services are now working and a few small fires caused by ruptured gas mains were put out.

The quake, described as a series of sharp shocks with a roaring sound, was felt widely along the east coast of the north and south islands, including in the capital Wellington, which is about 280 miles (450km) south of Gisborne.

Murray McPhail, who lives about six miles from Gisborne, said he could see waves in his swimming pool as the quake shook.

"You could just about surf on it," McPhail told the NZ Press Association. "Stuff came out of cupboards, bottles fell off walls, ornaments fell."

A seismologist said the depth of the quake had limited damage and minimised any chance of a tsunami.

New Zealand records about 14,000 earthquakes a year, with about 20 registering above 5.0 on the Richter scale. Only 150 are felt by residents and damage is caused by just 10 a year.

The last fatal earthquake in the geologically active country, caught between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates, was in 1968 when an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale killed three people on the south island's west coast.