Just over a week on from last Friday's tsunami evacuation alert for Northland, Susan Botting took a comprehensive look at how we handled it and what we can do better.
Northland's regional tsunami evacuation on March 5 was the biggest in New Zealand with tens of thousands shifting to higher ground along 3200 kilometres of coastline.
Fifteen thousand people, including more than 250 businesses, evacuated Whangārei's central city in the wake of mobile alerting and tsunami sirens going off and the warning came at 8.46am for people to "leave evacuation zones NOW to high ground or inland".
Northland Civil Defence Group chairman Rick Stolwerk said the region's coastal evacuation was exemplary.
"It definitely scored an A for the response, because everybody quickly did what they were requested to do," Stolwerk said.
People around the region shifted out of tsunami evacuation zones to higher ground from dozens of low-lying communities along the coast.
"I was at Langs Beach. Everybody came up the hill as they were asked to do. The beach was empty within half an hour," Stolwerk said.
Four tsunami mobile phone alerts, the first from New Zealand's national Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) in Wellington, the next three from Northland Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM), alerted Northlanders about the tsunami and evacuation.
Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai gave her district's tsunami evacuation an overall B+ scorecard.
But that overall score was tempered by a wide range of more localised scores across the district's tsunami evacuation zone evacuation process.
"It's very dependent, I'd score it between A and D because situations varied. Some people had plans and were totally prepared and used those plans but there were others who, for lots of different reasons, were not ready," Mai said.
Far North mayor and former Civil Defence Minister John Carter gave the Far North's response an A scorecard.
He said his community had responded magnificently, but, as with any response, improvements could be made.
It was important people were clear about whether they were in a tsunami evacuation zone (check out nrc.govt.nz/evacuationzones) so they were prepared when sirens sounded and/or alerts came through.
In Kaipara, mayor Dr Jason Smith also gave his district an A rating for its tsunami evacuation.
"People responded thoroughly, all across the district. They didn't question, they did what they were asked to do," Smith said.
"The people of Kaipara understood to evacuate immediately because they got locally generated mobile alerts and because there were sirens. I have nothing but praise for Northland Civil Defence."
Northland has New Zealand's biggest tsunami siren network, progressively developed since 2007 and now with more than 200 along the coast.
A new Tutukaka-bound, Danish-made tsunami siren arrived in New Zealand on Friday morning - as the real-life tsunami evacuation was unfolding - to be trialled as Northland CD works towards a $4.5 million network upgrade.
Victoria Harwood, Northland CDEM emergency management officer, said the new siren technology included voice messaging which could notify people about what needed to be done.
The new tsunami siren could be activated via the SMS mobile phone network, a plus if power supply went out. Sirens at four Far North locations near Cape Reinga went on but had problems staying on Friday after an unrelated power pole fire meant a Top Energy power cut.
Mai said a whole-of-central-city tsunami evacuation practice drill is likely in the wake of challenges with people trying to get to higher ground fast.
Her comments came after attending this week's quarterly Northland CDEM Group meeting where the tsunami evacuation was discussed.
Whangārei's central city is in a tsunami evacuation zone where more than 250 businesses and 150 residents are among thousands of people working, living and/or playing in Northland's largest urban centre.
Serious traffic congestion, lack of awareness about high points to evacuate to, almost no business tsunami evacuation planning and little communication about on-foot evacuation options are just a few of the issues those in the central city are concerned about in the evacuation's wake.
A city-wide tsunami evacuation drill was one tsunami evacuation improvement option since put forward by retailers. Another was a workshop where those in the central city could learn more.
"We need a workshop at Forum North for all those in the central city to learn more about what's involved in tsunami evacuation from the central city," NorthHaven Hospice retail manager Kathy McMillan said.
"We need to know where the city centre's nearest higher-ground evacuation points are and how best to get there," Town Basin Serenity Cafe owner Alfred Hong said.
"And we need to know how high to go to be safe."
Investigations have revealed a wide range of central city tsunami evacuation understanding, preparedness and planning among retailers. Some understood only what was happening by asking adjacent retailers and watching shops close around them.
Tony Phipps, Northland CDEM co-ordinating executive group chairman, said a tsunami evacuation preparedness workshop would be held for those in the city centre wanting to know more about what to do.
NorthChamber president Tim Robinson slammed the city's Friday traffic evacuation problems.
Robinson said the traffic congestion meant Whangārei had faced potential loss of life if the forecast one to three-metre tsunami had arrived.
"Lives would have potentially lots because people were stuck in their cars," Robinson said.
"I give that an F for fail scorecard," he said.
The city needed a tsunami evacuation traffic management plan and NorthChamber has written to the region's Mayoral Forum about its concerns.
Robinson said a usual 10-minute trip from town to Maunu had on Friday taken 50 minutes just to reach the State Highway 1/SH14 intersection.
He said the SH14/Hospital Rd lights should have been turned off as they held back lots of evacuees.
"These lights were still on their normal phase meaning the road from there back to SH1 was constantly blocked."
Whangārei's evacuating traffic issues in turn brought major potential to block New Zealand's main state highway through the city.
Traffic congestion meant a Hospice truck commandeered to get a pallet of donated bottled water from Regent New World to 500 people at the Whangārei Primary School evacuation point was stuck trying to get out of Bank St's carpark into traffic and to the supermarket, less than two minutes' drive away.
Hong also took issue with what he said was serious traffic congestion around the Town Basin.
Chloe De'ath, supervisor at Cameron St Mall's Bocky Boo Gelato icecream parlour, said major central city vehicle congestion, especially at traffic lights, slowed her normally five-minute journey to higher ground at Woodhill to 30 minutes.
She said traffic lights should have been rephased with longer green light times in lanes used to get out of town.
Mai said the council's central city evacuation plan would be reviewed to improve on significant traffic congestion issues for those trying to get out of town.
She said retailers should already have evacuation plans for emergencies such as fire and flooding and tsunami. Mai wanted more people to evacuate on foot.
Retailers said they wanted more information about where to evacuate to on foot and how to get there.
Higher points around the central city include Regent with its Whangārei Primary School evacuation site, Morningside, Parihaka, Maunu and the Port Rd hills.
In Rarotonga, almost all roads leading inland and up into its central mountains from its encircling flat ring road are marked with tsunami evacuation route signs. These indicate where people can walk to higher ground. The Cook Islands Government requires regular tsunami evacuation drills along these routes.
Cycling is another option.
Mai said it was important for people to know whether their workplace was in a tsunami evacuation zone as some who were in safe areas had evacuated, without realising they hadn't needed to.
Ben Yu, a John St discount store owner, said more Chinese-language tsunami evacuation information was required. There were increasing numbers of Chinese in the central city in the last two years.
Hong said this could be spread via the Whangārei Chinese community's WeChat pages. Other languages were also needed.
■ About 250,000 people – more than Northland's entire 180,000 population - went to the Northland CDEM Facebook page to find out more during the tsunami evacuation and 15,000 people checked whether they were in a tsunami evacuation zone.
One thing everybody can do in case of the need to be evacuated is an emergency grab bag kit.
Assemble the following items for your grab bag:
■ Water bottle
■ Change of clothes (wind and waterproof clothing, sun hats, and strong outdoor shoes).
■ Torch with spare batteries.
■ Small battery-operated radio with backup batteries
■ Driver's licence
■ Emergency food rations that can easily be carried. If you have specific dietary requirements it is important to have extra supplies.
■ Toiletries – towel, soap, toothbrush, sanitary items, toilet paper
■ First aid kit and essential medicines
■ Important documents (identification such as birth and marriage certificates, driver's licences and passports); financial information (insurance policies, mortgage information). Hearing aids, glasses, mobility aids for elderly or vulnerable members of your household
■ For more resources go to www.getready.govt.nz