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Blackout plunges New Zealand city into chaos

A 5-day-old power blackout has shut down most of New Zealand's largest city, plunging stores into darkness, rotting refrigerators full of food and creating bumper-to-bumper gridlock at intersections.

Auckland's normally bustling downtown business section is deserted. Its hotels, restaurants, banks, shopping malls and office towers are empty except for police on patrol against looters.Trying to cope, retailers had moved their merchandise to city sidewalks, but heavy rains and gale force winds Tuesday forced them to flee indoors.

On Friday, the last of four major power supply cables failed, cutting electricity to downtown offices and more than 5,000 apartments.

Business leaders estimate the cost of the blackout has already reached tens of millions of dollars. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters told parliament the crisis could cut up to 0.2 percentage points from the nation's economic growth.

"We've got one of the most modern cities in the world being reduced to Third World status," Peters said.

Only 10 percent of the normal power supply is reaching the city, and that is being reserved for emergency services, said Diane Miller, a spokeswoman for Mercury Energy.

The government has ordered an inquiry into the crisis, including an investigation into whether Mercury had allowed services to deteriorate.

How much worse can it get? Well, there's plenty of time to find out.

Power company officials say full power will not be restored to the city until at least March 8.