A magnitude-6.5 temblor struck just after 2:30 p.m. near the small South Island town of Seddon, and at least six aftershocks were 5.0 magnitude or stronger.
Several homes near the epicenter were severely damaged, with chimneys collapsing and roofs caving in, said police spokeswoman Barbara Dunn. She said a bridge was severely damaged on the main highway near Seddon, and that rocks and debris had fallen onto the road. Police closed a section of the highway.
Some buildings in Wellington, the capital, were evacuated, and items were knocked off shelves in places.
Police said a number of people were freed from Wellington elevators that stopped working. The initial temblor also forced the nation's stock exchange to close for more than an hour.
Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said there was no major damage to the city's infrastructure or office buildings. She said highways had become clogged as people left the city.
"We think this is business as usual," she said, "but it is going to take a little while for people to get home tonight."
The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter of the initial temblor was 94 kilometers (58 miles) west of Wellington at a depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles).
A quake of similar strength in the same area three weeks ago broke water mains, smashed windows and downed power lines.
Caroline Little, a seismologist with New Zealand quake monitoring agency GeoNet, said the series of quakes since July had followed an unusual pattern.
"Normally you get a big quake and then the aftershocks get smaller in magnitude," she said.
Little said the July quake was on a fault line near Seddon that had not previously been mapped. She said it was too early to determine if Friday's quakes were on that same fault.
A different fault line runs through Wellington, and many in the city fear an earthquake along that fault could result in a major disaster.
New Zealand is part of the so-called Pacific "Ring of Fire" that has regular seismic activity. A severe earthquake in the city of Christchurch in 2011 killed 185 people and destroyed much of the city's downtown.
Local authorities issued no tsunami warnings after Friday's quakes.
Take ABC13 with you!
Download our free apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices