What was supposed to be an historic ceremonial visit to New Zealand has turned into a disaster relief mission. Following the earthquake early Monday morning, the guided missile destroyer USS Sampson has changed course to join the effort to evacuate more than a thousand tourists stranded on the South Island. More from Neal Conan in the Pacific News Minute.
The coastal town of Kaikoura was cut off by landslides that followed the 7.8 magnitude quake. The popular whale watching spot was crowded with tourists who found temporary housing in the communal halls of the Maori Ngai Tahu where they dined on crayfish, the local delicacy.
By chance, USS Sampson and a P3c Orion from Marine Corps Base Hawaii were in New Zealand to participate in an International Naval Review to mark the 75th anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy. The maritime patrol plane quickly started reconnaissance flights over the stricken area, while USS Sampson headed south to bring its Two Seahawk helicopters in range to assist with evacuation and delivery of supplies. Two New Zealand Naval Vessels are heading that effort, and Australia's HMAS Darwin has also diverted to help.
Before the quake, a small flotilla of protesters had been expected to greet Sampson's arrival in Auckland harbor...New Zealand has been proudly nuclear free since the mid-1980s...while the US removed nuclear weapons from its surface vessels decades ago. As a matter of policy, it refuses to confirm or deny their presence, so no US vessels have called into a New Zealand port for more than thirty years, When he approved Sampson's visit. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said. "I think the Americans have long since worked out that we're good friends of theirs, that we have a particular view when it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear materials."