When Ngunguru's Raewyn Tipene was awoken by a wailing alarm in the small hours of Monday, she thought someone was trying to steal her car.

In fact, the 2am siren was a cue to get to higher ground, after a midnight earthquake near Hanmer in the South Island triggered a tsunami warning for most of New Zealand's east coast.

"It was a funny little alarm," Ms Tipene said. "I came out to check on our car and I could see this red light so I thought, oh it's probably the tsunami siren."

Ms Tipene - who lives opposite Ngunguru Estuary - said she initially was not sure whether to wake up her family and move out, after a neighbour reassured her. But when the siren started a second time she thought it was serious.


"There was car after car going past the house, so we jumped in our cars and went up [Tutukaka] hill. There were cars lined all the way up to the top."

Ms Tipene said there was a social atmosphere on the hill, where "hundreds" had parked up. Just after 3am, word came that the threat had dissipated.

Ms Tipene said she hadn't been particularly worried by the incident, but that it had served as a reminder to the family to get an emergency kit together.

Northland St John operations manager Tony Devanney lives near Tutukaka Marina and said he took part in a nationwide briefing on the threat at about 1.30am, before evacuating when sirens sounded at 2am.

He said the incident was reminder for families to review emergency plans as "priorities change".

"We've got a new baby - a 1-year-old. In hindsight we probably should have had a bag ready and packed for him," Mr Devanney said. "A year ago we would have been worried about passports and so on."

Meanwhile Mal Egginton, of Tutukaka's Kowharewa Bay, was keeping an eye out for surges but decided to stay home.

Mr Egginton said looking at the news online told him that the threat was mainly for the south of the North Island and north of the South Island.

"But we were all ready and could've shot through in about 10 minutes," he said.

The tsunami alert saw Russell barman Steve Crockatt do a double shift.

The regular Russell Radio operator was shutting up shop at the Swordfish Club where he'd been working a long shift as barman when the tsunami siren went off.

Mr Crockatt ran up to the Russell Radio marine station's office above the club, went on the internet to find out as much as he could and then started notifying boats in Bay of Islands and out at sea.

"The Civil Defence boys were pretty quick to get their warnings out. We were streaming any updates. It was a case of sharing the information, everything seemed to work well," Mr Crockatt said.

At Taupo Bay Holiday Park, manager John Urlich and his family evacuated from their beach front home and headed up the hill to the local fire station at about 1.30am.

He described the alert as "pretty uneventful".