Sensible East Coasters

It is reported that several hundred Gisborne and East Coast residents took the decision to evacuate their houses and head for higher ground following news of the strong earthquake near Tonga this morning.

While Civil Defence authorities dithered, people reacted to radio and extensive reporting of the earthquake and tsunami risk on satellite television channels.

The shallow magnitude 7.9 earthquake occurred at 3:27 a.m. New Zealand time, about 160 km northeast of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa. Damage in the city, where the quake was strongly felt, is still to be thoroughly assessed as residents begin their day. Reports so far describe damage to house contents with items being thrown from shelves, furniture overturned and crockery and glass items broken. Electricity supplies were disrupted in some areas for a short time.

Geonet reports that the earthquake was felt in Auckland.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami alert following the earthquake and, had a seismic wave been generated, its arrival time at Gisborne was estimated at 6:20 a.m. Satellite television networks picked up on both the earthquake and tsunami report and began covering the event, and news spread.

National Civil Defence controller Mike O’Leary told National Radio’s Morning Report that by about 4 a.m. they had received advice that the risk of a tsunami reaching New Zealand was not as high as originally thought. Therefore an alert was not issued.

However, data provided by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre show that it was not until reports came in from wave buoys at Niue at 4:03 a.m. and Pago Pago at 4:36 that seismic wave data could be properly evaluated with the waves having repeat periods of 10 minutes at Niue and 24 minutes at Pago Pago. The waves at both locations were put at 21cm and 15 cm respectively.

Meanwhile, in Gisborne, the regional civil defence officer Roger Steele and mayor Meng Foon had been alerted, with the mayor saying he was out of bed at about 4 a.m.

Most Gisborne residents slumbered on, having felt no tremor and heard no precautionary alert.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre did not cancel its tsunami warning until 5:36 a.m., some 44 minutes prior to the estimated arrival time of a seismic wave at Gisborne.

Had it become necessary to alert coastal residents to move to higher ground, how would this have been accomplished? Well, Mr Steele advised Morning Report that authorities would knock on doors and mobilise public address vehicles. I pity the poor “authorities” who would have to knock on thirty thousand-odd doors in the space of an hour or so in Gisborne city alone. However, on a brighter note he admitted that Civil Defence did manage to rouse one local radio station to publicise the fact that a tsunami alert had been retracted.

Those residents of the Gisborrne area who decided to “self-evacuate” to higher ground based on media reports show considerable sense. Despite desperate attempts by Morning Report’s Sean Plunket to insert the word “chaos” into the discussion, a couple of hundred people loading their families into vehicles to avoid a possible risk in low-lying areas is very sensible, and hardly panic. Had they waited for the dithering authorities to make a decision if a tsunami was detected, they would indeed have been caught up in chaos.

I hear that Kaiti Hill and Gaddum’s Hill were popular destinations. Both have poor road access and Kaiti Hill, though handy to the city, is not the best destination. It is very close to the coast and the narrow access road with an even narrower alternative exit road is easily blocked, as was proven during a tsunami alert in the 1970s. Once the road becomes congested, those people stuck in cars on low parts of the hill have placed themselves in greater danger by heading toward the coast.

The general rule of thumb is to head inland to higher ground.

So, good on you Gisborne people who undertook an orderly precautionary evacuation in the absence of official advice as to whether a risk existed. It is commonsense in the absence of official advice. The ability of Civil Defence authorities to manage an anticipated civil disruption in a world where news spreads rapidly is a disgrace.

As Gisborne’s mayor Meng Foon said on Morning Report this morning, there is no tsunami warning system in Gisborne.

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