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Source: Auckland Council

On Friday 5 March, three large earthquakes struck off the north east coast of New Zealand.  The last of these was a magnitude 8.1 earthquake on the Kermadec Islands (around 1,000 km north east of New Zealand), triggering a tsunami threat for parts of Northland and Aotea / Great Barrier Island. 

While most Aucklanders were told to stay away from beaches and off the water, the 936 residents of Aotea / Great Barrier Island were asked to evacuate immediately to higher ground.

Island residents are well aware of the risks that come with living on one of the Auckland region’s most remote spots which means they also know what to do when disaster strikes.  When the tsunami threat was issued by the National Emergency Management Agency, the island’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) swung into action. 

Cushla Buchanan manages the Island’s service centre and is also part of the ERT. 

“The team activated immediately to support the Emergency Mobile Alert (EMA) through the use of local radio, VHF radio, email lists and social media,” she explains. 

“We also mobilised the Police and Fire Emergency New Zealand vehicles to cover low-lying areas of the island with their sirens on full blast.”  This includes the areas of the island without cell phone coverage, ensuring the evacuation message gets to everyone.

The response to the evacuation order was immediate, with everyone who is required to evacuate moving to higher ground.  This also included moving the fire trucks and other large emergency vehicles to high ground. At that point, says Cushla, it’s a waiting game. 

The wait is the hardest part. Once people feel the imminent threat has passed, they want to get home, but we obviously need to stay at the evacuation points until the official stand down order is given.”

Izzy Fordham is chair of the Aotea / Great Barrier Local Board and like Cushla, a member of the ERT. 

“It was,” she says, “really, really lovely to hear from Mayor Phil, our ward councillor Pippa Coom and our MP Chloe Swarbrick while we were evacuated.  It was reassuring to know how well supported we were from afar. I’m really proud of the resident’s response and the way that everyone evacuated.” 

Izzy says that while a full debrief will acknowledge what went well, it’s also a chance to reflect on what could be improved to ensure residents can be better prepared next time. 

As it’s been a few years since the last tsunami evacuation, Cushla thinks the recent threat demonstrated that there’s no place for complacency. 

“I would suggest that for many, this latest incident has highlighted how under-prepared they are to leave their homes with urgency and the need to have a ‘grab bag’ ready with some essential items.”

Councillor Sharon Stewart, chair of Auckland Council’s Civil Defence and Emergency Management Committee, says the recent tsunami threat serves as a reminder to all Aucklanders of the need to be prepared. 

“I really want to praise the Aotea / Great Barrier Island community for their swift actions which meant everyone was able to evacuate quickly and safely.  They have demonstrated the value of having a plan and knowing what to do when the worst happens.

“With the tsunami threat fresh in our minds, now is a really good time for Aucklanders to use the hazard viewer on the Auckland Emergency Management website to find out if they live or work in an evacuation zone.

“If you do, there are some really easy steps you can take to make sure you and your family are prepared. Take the time now to plan a route to safety and have a grab bag of essential items – food, water, any medication, walking shoes and a warm fleece or jacket – ready to go.”

Kate Crawford, General Manager of Auckland Emergency Management says it’s important to follow official channels for the latest advice and information. 

“Aucklanders can follow the National Emergency Management Agency on Twitter and Facebook and Auckland Emergency Management for additional advice for the Auckland region.” 

Click here for more information about what to do in the event of a tsunami.