In terms of public reaction to the potential of a tsunami arriving on the Hawke's Bay shoreline, times have very definitely changed - for the better.

In late May, back in 1960, the first major evacuation of New Zealand coastal areas was carried out after a massive earthquake and a huge aftershock in Chile sparked a tsunami alert across the Pacific.

There were a string of initial waves which started at 1am, and there had been no warnings.

About 50m of footbridge across the Ahuriri Estuary was torn away, in the process snapping gas and power lines which ran along it.

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A number of boats and launches in the inner harbour were torn free and some were swept out to sea.

Buildings and a caravan were flooded and moved, and there were initial fears for the safety of the Napier Sailing Club's caretaker and his family.

They were shaken, but alive.

A huge amount of sand was scoured from the inner boat harbour and some people said some surges were up to 3m above the usual high tide mark.

At Te Awanga, eight people at the campground were swept from their tents and across the road, while seaside cabins were battered.

At Clifton Domain, a sea wall 3m above high tide mark was damaged while high seas were noted at Porangahau and Pourerere but no damage was done.

People were generally unaware there had been a tsunami, or "tidal wave" as they were known then, had occurred and no damage was done.

Two days later a large aftershock in Chile resulted in the broadcast of a nationwide radio warning across New Zealand.

Although some communities were evacuated on the east coast in the North and South Islands, in Napier it was reported that the major effect of the warning, which was broadcast at frequent intervals during the afternoon, was that it actually drove people towards the beaches rather than away from them.

Despite the reports of damage from the initial tsunami, there was much more curiosity than fear.

"All afternoon seafronts at Marine Parade and Westshore were thronged with larger numbers of people than usual at this time of year," the press reported.

"Foolishly people hoped to see a tsunami instead of escape from one."

For Waimarama Civil Defence committee chairman Richard Gaddum such a situation was effectively beyond belief.

"Remarkable," he said. "No, it would not happen today because the education programmes that have been put together have been very good."

As well as the education approach, of being prepared and taking the initiative to move to higher, safer ground in the wake of a long, severe earthquake, there were the events over recent years, and tsunami coverage from locations devastated by them, which had created a cautious, not curious response.

"This event [the Kaikoura 'quake] has highlighted how vulnerable we are to tsunamis - we did not get it but it can happen."

As it did in 1960, and a tsunami alert back issued for the East Coast in 2010 also reinforced the potential threat, with a fisherman at Waimarama being caught by one surge and dragged out.

He managed to make it back to shore.

Ships at Napier Port put to sea as a precaution and there were surges again through the inner harbour.

"People are so much better prepared today and we saw that here the other night," Mr Gaddum said.

Residents asked to evacuate responded quickly, and some even put up signs to warn anyone driving into the area.

Haumoana, Te Awanga, Bay View and Whirinaki residents adjudged to be in potential red zones also moved inland fast after getting the word, and without prompting a lot of Napier people headed for high ground as a sort of "just in case" approach.

The mindset had come a long way in 56 years.

Mr Gaddum said the timing of a pamphlet drop to Waimarama residents at Labour Weekend had worked out well.

It covered plans and precautions and advised of effective escape routes.

There would always be one or two who might linger and shrug but the wider populace had pretty well taken the tsunami situation seriously, he said.

Which, he added, was a very good thing as there was potential for extreme danger less than 100km off the coast.

The Hikurangi Trench seismic region runs along the eastern coastline, and a major earthquake within it would see a tsunami close in within just 12 to 15 minutes.

That meant people had to have a "get out quick" plan in place as well as take their own initiatives and get away.

"They may only have a short time to get out - to head for the hills."

The head for the shore to see it would not happen today, Mr Gaddum said.