5 Mar 2021

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks after quake triggers tsunami alerts

6:00 pm on 5 March 2021

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says it's hard not to feel like New Zealand is having a run of bad luck, with residents waking up today to a tsunami alert amidst the Covid-19 restrictions.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds a media briefing following the Maui Drone Project Launch at the Maritime Room, Princess Wharf, Viaduct Harbour. 26/02/21

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The tsunami alert was triggered after three quakes overnight - the first of 7.3 magnitude struck about 2.30am just off the east coast of the North Island. The second was 7.4 magnitude near Kermadec Islands at 6.41am, and the third was a magnitude 8.1 quake near Kermadec Islands at 8.28am.

At 3.45pm, the National Emergency Management Agency cancelled all of the tsunami warnings.

Emergency Management Minister Kiritapu Allan says there are no reports of damage at this stage to property, but the focus has been on evacuation and ground would now be able to further assess that.

The prime minister says HMNZS Canterbury was due to be at the Kermadec Islands to carry GNS scientists, Sir Peter Blake Trust scholarship holders, and a group of iwi but the Covid-19 alert level changes on Sunday had prevented that deployment from happening.

"Otherwise we would have had people on the island at the time and I can't imagine what that experience would've been like." Ardern says what would have been "a very distressing if not dangerous situation" had been prevented in this instance.

She said when she felt the earthquake she checked in with the minister at 2.29am.

Asked about what she thought given the country was dealing with a pandemic and an earthquake, she said: "Bugger it, pretty much what everyone else thought at that time, but this is as the minister has said, we are the shaky isles and what we've got to do is make sure no matter what experience we have we do everything we can to prepare so that in the future if we have another experience that we are even better prepared than we were."

"As I walked into the Beehive bunker, where we undertake our Civil Defence emergency co-ordination, two things struck me. First that it's hard not to feel like our country is having a run of bad luck when you have an earthquake, tsunami alert and pandemic to contend with all in one day."

But she says walking past images of past natural disasters plastered on the walls to the bunker, she realised the efforts of Civil Defence teams.

"We have had our share of tough moments in this country, but within that we have always been blessed incredible people who work in our emergency system."

Allan says there have been multiple aftershocks after the initial quakes.

"A tsunami was generated with the first waves reaching Aotearoa in the areas around Lottin Point near Hicks Bay.

"At the time of the event, the National Emergency Management Agency had already activated the national co-ordination centre here due to the Covid-19 resurgence. Additional resources were brought in to respond to this tsunami event in the early hours."

She thanked all those who did the right thing and evacuated when they felt the long and strong quake in the early hours as well as service people.

"They took to the streets to look after our communities," she says, adding gratitude for Civil Defence teams as well as media for providing updates to the public.

"This has been a significant event for all of Aotearoa.

"That means now people can return home. I guess we say this with one word of caution - whilst there is no longer restrictions on being able to go down into the beach, please do exercise prudent judgment. We are still asking people to take care."

Allan says they decided to call off the tsunami warnings as per advice on the management of risk to life.

"GNS has been working closely to monitor the science ... at the time, they deemed it was appropriate that there was no longer a risk to life."

Emergency alert messaging

Ardern said people should know that when a quake is long and strong, they need to go.

"Because we'll never be able to get an alert out to as quickly as you'll need to move if you feel that strong and rolling earthquake straight away."

Although for the Kermadec Islands she notes that it was at a distance that people may not have felt, and in those cases, people could rely on the system to notify them of evacuations.

Allan said the emergency management system alert sent to phones is not meant to be a carte blanche notification to all.

"Those are strictly targeted and have been targeted again based on the science available as to those at most risk."

She said another important role in that system was the Civil Defence website and news media communicating emergency messages.

"So when we step back and look at system as a whole, are we satisfied that people knew what to do at the critical times? And that ultimately they could stay safe? I think in and around the answer is yes."

She said they will still undertake a review - like with all such events - to stress-test the system.

"It was a unique set of circumstances to see the nature of those large earthquakes, which required major evacuations throughout the country."

She noted a 2017 review off the back of the Kaikōura and Christchurch quakes had made a raft of recommendations.

One of the things that will be explored over the next few days is whether the emergency messaging was targeting the right people, and if sufficient people received the notification.

"I'm advised that thousands of people today received notifications at different times, as the messaging shifted and as it was required," Allan says.

She said they were just about to launch into a tsunami public messaging campaign and this event had affirmed the necessity of it.

"I think one of the key takeaways from today is really the reminder we are islanders of a small Pacific Island nation that is surrounded by coastlines, tsunamis are a big part of our lives ... have a packed bag ready to go, have a plan about what to and how to do it."

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