Northland coped well with yesterday's tsunami warning, but more work is needed on an evacuation plan to prevent the sort of gridlock that hit Whangārei as thousands fled the CBD, Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai said.
Thousands of Northlanders fled their homes, offices and schools in low-lying coastal areas and headed for the safety of higher ground after a tsunami warning was issued by Civil Defence at 8.46am. The all-clear was given at 3.34pm.
The warning said people in coastal areas must leave immediately from evacuation zones and move to high ground or as far inland as possible. It said those people should not stay at home and should take only essential items.
At the same time Northland's network of 200 tsunami sirens went off along the coast to give those that may not have received the text message a warning of the risk.
It saw people flee the coast and head to higher ground or inland, including thousands from central Whangārei.
Mai said problems with people being able to exit the gridlocked city centre during the tsunami evacuation will be looked into. Whangārei CBD was jammed with vehicles evacuating the city centre which is in a tsunami evacuation zone
She said people trying to find their way out of the city centre to higher ground would have felt anxiety as they faced clogged roads and congestion.
"Imagine the anxiety people would feel if a big tsunami came through and they were still in the queue to get out (of town)."
Rob Forlong, WDC chief executive, said there had been rush hour-like conditions with vehicles evacuating town and heading north past Whangārei Primary for about 90 minutes after he and council staff arrived at the school, the council's official tsunami evacuation point about 9.20am.
Mai said options for evacuating on foot would be further considered.
Similar traffic congestion at Ruakākā during the tsunami evacuation would also be considered.
Mai said a major traffic pinch point at the Princes Rd bridge had already been identified by the council. Two-laning of this bridge was a project already in WDC's Draft 2021-2031 Long Term Plan.
She said one option for addressing Ruakākā traffic congestion in a tsunami evacuation was to allow traffic to travel in the same direction on both lanes of a two-lane road.
Mai said she wanted to have discussions with Police to see whether it was possible to waive the requirement for vehicles heading out of the area to travel in just a single lane.
Evacuations from Ruakākā included from New Zealand's only oil refinery at Marsden Point.
Bream Bay area encompasses a large flat area where access to higher ground is not close.
Mai said it had been a great relief the forecast tsunami hadn't eventuated, but there had been advantages in the timing of the tsunami warnings. There would have been quite different local ramifications if the tsunami warning had happened at 3am.
She said one of the clear lessons learned from the event had been the huge benefit in being prepared.
"People need to have their emergency grab kit ready with water, snacks, medications and a phone charger that can operate without electricity," Mai said.
She said WDC staff evacuation from the central city's Forum North and Walton Plaza and other spaces such as the Whangārei Central Library had gone well. Toilets for the 500 council and central city evacuees
were made available at the school and nearby Salvation Army.
Nearby Regent New World owner and former All Black Eric Rush donated a pallet of water to evacuees at the school. The school also provided Kids Can healthy snacks to the evacuees. The Salvation Army provided chicken and lettuce sandwiches and chocolate squares.
Four Far North tsunami sirens that experienced problems during the tsunami evacuation would be investigated, Far North Mayor John Carter said.
The former Minister of Civil Defence said investigation into the issues with these sirens would be part of a post-event debrief.
Te Kao, Te Paki, Te Hapua and Ngataki sirens on the Aupouri Peninsula not far south of Cape Reinga were affected by a Top Energy power outage.
Tsunami sirens are among essential alert technology in these isolated and remote Far North communities. Cape Reinga is New Zealand's closest mainland point to the
Kermadec Islands about 1000 kilometres to the North.
Carter said communicating tsunami evacuation warnings to far-flung remote Far North communities was among the day's biggest challenges.
"Today's biggest challenge was making sure everybody was aware of the alerts," Carter said.
Issues with internet access and mobile phone connectivity in some communities meant extra challenge for the Far North. "There are always people who not get the advice."
This meant door knocking and going around local communities notifying people were also required.
He and other councillors had gone around their people making sure they knew of the alerts.
Northland's Civil Defence provision had worked well, across the raft of people involved, he said.
Carter said the people of the Far North, Northland and New Zealand could all be congratulated for the way they had responded during yesterday's tsunami warnings and evacuations.
Northland Civil Defence spokesman Murray Soljak said the tsunami warning system had worked well in alerting people to the risks and getting the messages out to evacuate and head to higher ground.
He said the Tsunami Siren System, a network of more than 200 tsunami sirens down Northland's coastline, combined with the Civil Defence text alerts, proved very effective.
Northlanders deserved a big pat on the back for their response to the alert.
He said there was some confusion among some people about the text alerts, with some people not aware of how the system works. Some people were questioning the number of text alerts and whether they were still valid after receiving earlier text saying the tsunami threat was over.
Soljak said he could understand the confusion, but it was important that people treated every alert as superseding any previous alerts.
So the most recent alert you received was the most relevant one and the information replaced anything in earlier alerts.
Despite that small issue, he said the system worked and people had followed the messages extremely well and evacuated as soon as they could.
It was heartening to see that people were calm during the evacuation and there were no major problems.
There was, however, some misinformation being spread on social media, with several people, reporting that Whangārei's Hatea River had "gone out" as a result of the tsunami, but that was not the case.
People wanting the most up-to-date information should go to www.civildefence.govt.nz or check out the Civil Defence Facebook page. twitter feed or instagram or download its app.
To see if you are in a tsunami evacuation zone check nrc.govt.nz/evacuationzones.
Janice Shepherd, a retiree from Haruru, had come into Pak'n Save in central Whangārei to do her weekly grocery shop with family members Darlene Kelly, of Haruru, and Alison Harrison, of Kawakawa.
"I was in the Pak'n Save in the alcohol section when I got an alert on my phone," Shepherd said.
Concerned she asked two Pak'n Save workers about what they should do.
"But they didn't know. I don't think they had their phones," she said.
Right at that moment Shepherd heard an announcement over the supermarket speaker instructing everyone to evacuate.
"I just left our trolley and went. Everybody was pretty calm but trying to get out on the road from the carpark was the worst."
Shepherd and her family were high on the hill on Anzac Rd looking down on the city where they could see a long line of traffic headed along Riverside Dr towards Onerahi.
"I'm not feeling concerned but imagine they have given us plenty of warning," she said.
"I had all the kiddies ringing me telling me to go to higher ground."
The generosity of Northlanders was also on show in Onerahi, where the local New World branch dropped off ham, bread, sausages and fruit to the pupils and staff of Raurimu Avenue School who had gathered at the Onerahi fire station.
About 40 pupils and staff made their way up Raurimu Avenue, away from their low-lying school about 9am. Moutini Bryers, who had been acting principal for two weeks, was incredibly grateful after such generosity. "Can't thank them enough," he said.
Local volunteer firefighters were also on hand to help any nearby elderly and disabled people into the station.
While it was a disruptive way to start the day, Bryers said Covid preparations last year had prepared them well for an event like this.
Onerahi woman Ashleigh Wyse and her 3-year-old, Annalise, had been at the Civil Defence base at the Onerahi community hall since 9:30am. Wyse, whose home was near the tsunami zone, said as soon as she heard the alert, she grabbed her dog and two cats before heading to the hall.
"My anxiety is through the roof," she said.
Wyse was anxious to see her 12-year-old daughter at Whangārei Intermediate School who had been evacuated.
"I just want to have her here with me and give her a big hug but at least I know she's in a safe area."
A small group of about 10 people were sitting tight at the hall.
In Matauri Bay, which has a beachside motorcamp and many low-lying homes, people were evacuated to the marae on Te Tapui Rd at the top of the hill.
Kaumātua Dover Samuels said around 11am the water was as calm as he had ever seen it. He could see at least 5km with no sign of a tsunami or any disturbance.
''In the past we've had changes in the tone of the sea [before a tsunami] but right now it's as placid as Lake Rotorua.''
Samuels said there was no panic as residents and visitors made their way to high ground.
He was concerned about the stress of the evacuation, coming on top of a year of Covid, and hoped the alert would be lifted quickly.
''But that's no criticism of the warning. It was a bloody big shake,'' he said.
Selected businesses in central Whangārei decided to reopen once the alert level was downgraded and one made hay, selling its stock within 30 minutes.
Cuppacakes Northland on John St usually sells new stock during the course of the day but yesterday,
all were gone in half an hour of reopening in the afternoon.
Owner Ashley Telfer said her staff baked about 80 cupcakes, 40 doughnuts, and other things yesterday morning
but had to shut up shop due to the alert.
They re-opened about 2pm and customer flocked in.
"We've had to re-stock, we already had them made. I knew, based on how the community responded after a change in Covid alert levels, that all I needed to do was to put it out there and people would come in," she said.