An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.4 struck central New Zealand just after midnight on Sunday (11:02 GMT), the U.S. Geological Survey said, generating a tsunami that hit the northeast coast of the South Island.
New Zealand's Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management warned of the risk of destructive waves along the country's entire east coast and urged residents in low-lying areas to evacuate and seek higher ground.
Anna Kaiser, a seismologist at GNS Science said a tidal signal or surge of up to one meter (3 feet) had been recorded in North Canterbury region of the South Island.
"That's reasonably significant so people should take this seriously," she told Radio New Zealand.
The quake was centered 91 km (57 miles) north-northeast of Christchurch, the biggest city on New Zealand's South Island.
A 6.3 quake there in February 2011 killed 185 people and caused widespread damage.
The tremor, which was measured by New Zealand's Geonet at magnitude 6.6, was felt throughout most of New Zealand. Civil Defence said it was too early to assess the damage or whether there had been any injuries or deaths.
"The whole house rolled like a serpent and some things smashed, the power went out," a woman who gave her name as Elizabeth told Radio New Zealand from her home in Takaka, near the top of the South Island.
Chris Hill, a fire officer in Cheviot, a coastal town near the quake's epicenter, said officials had gone door to door evacuating residents.
"Everyone seems OK here," he told RNZ. "There's a lot of debris in houses, but at this stage it doesn't look like anything too bad has happened."
Residents in Wellington said glass had fallen from buildings into the streets and hotels and apartment buildings had been evacuated.
RNZ said the Wellington City Council had received multiple reports of significant damage.
A series of aftershocks were recorded around the country, some as strong as 6.1 magnitude.
(Inputs from Reuters)