This coming week, it will be 10 years since Japan was hit by the Tohoku earthquake, one of the most powerful ever recorded. It flattened some parts of the country; the 17m waves following behind caused even more pain. At least 16,000 people died.
This morning, New Zealand got its own small reminder of the fear and uncertainty posed by such a tragedy. Some like me were working nights at 2.27am, when a 7.3 magnitude quake struck off East Cape. Thousands more were woken by it. A locally-triggered tsunami is a different kind of crisis from a pandemic lockdown. It requires no blaring mobile-phone notification – the quake is its own notification.
Within an hour or so, more than 52,000 people (some as far away as Bluff or Chatham Islands) had clicked on the web page of government agency GeoNet, to say they felt the quake. Others replied to my social media posts to tell me about it.
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What they disclosed was that, sadly, government agencies struggle as much with communicating the appropriate public response to an earthquake and potential tsunami as we do with communicating the response to potential Covid exposure.
In other Pacific countries the authorities have, at least, been clear and decisive. Cook Islands has sent all its children home from school today. American Samoa has ordered all residents to evacuate to higher ground and remain there until further notice.
But in New Zealand this morning, uncertainty has been rife. The Civil Defence Minister and the National Controller are to hold a press conference just before lunchtime (nine hours after the first quake) and that should answer some questions.
But meanwhile in the Bay of Plenty, people were asking why they didn’t get phone alerts. In Napier, a friend tells me that, in the absence of information, people packed their sleepy pyjama-clad children into cars and made for the higher ground of Hospital Hill. He has formally complained to Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence.
Authorities posted on Facebook saying there was no tsunami threat at the same time as the main Civil Defence page was telling people to get out. As it turned out, Hawke’s Bay was not at risk – but a map of at-risk areas (dated DD/MM/2020 and wrongly timing the quake as 2.58am) wasn’t published until nearly two hours after the quake. HB Civil Defence Emergency Management Group is blaming national headquarters for the delay, saying they didn’t receive the map until 4:12am.
By then, water had already surged erratically around Port Tauranga, Great Barrier Island, and East Cape, but Hawke’s Bay was protected in the lee of Mahia Peninsula. “This has been a bloody shambles,” complained one local. “You posted maps of evacuation and no threat.”
Another said: “I’ve been trying to access your web site since the quake and it isn’t loading.”
“All the misinformation is crazy, you have one page saying this, another saying that,” said a third. “Can we not get all departments on the same page? LOL people would be dead by now.”
That’s no LOLing matter though; fortunately, nobody was dead. This time. And in Te Araroa, near the quake’s epicentre, the community came together in a way that only small towns can. For Ros and Rick, the Eastern Four Square owners who moved down from Auckland three years ago, it was their first big quake. Their dogs had been unsettled and barking and woke them up minutes before the rolling started.
Seconds after it stopped, one of their staff phoned to tell them they needed to get to higher ground – and hitching a ride! For the next 2½ hours, the community remained gathered up Whetumatarau Hill, as their phones rang from concerned family and friends around the world.
At 5am they got back into their store, fearing the worst. But nothing was broken. The only things knocked from the shelves were a bottle of honey, a bag of Skittles, and a couple more items.
As she stocked up the pie-warmer this morning, Ros told me she was feeling lucky. She and everyone else in town will be coming into the store to buy themselves Lotto tickets today, she reckoned.