TSUNAMI WARNING LATEST
* Three major earthquakes - at 2.27am, 6.41am, and 8.28am - all of magnitue 7 or higher hit near New Zealand
* The third of these earthquakes - a magnitude 8.1 quake in the Kermadec Islands - spark Civil Defence tsunami warnings
* Wave surges strike New Zealand coastline as evacuated residents watch from higher ground
* Largest waves pass by 1.30pm with no reports of damage; evacuees told they can return home
* National tsunami advisory lifted at 3.43pm
The national tsunami advisory has been lifted, finally bringing some peace of mind for New Zealanders - 13 hours after the first of three massive Pacific Ocean earthquakes.
Wave surges hit parts of the New Zealand coast earlier today and thousands of people were evacuated from homes, schools and workplaces after fears of tsunami activity following an 8.1 magnitude earthquake in the Kermadec Islands.
Much of the North Island - including Northland, parts of the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast - has been under a tsunami warning and entire towns, such as Opotiki, were ordered to evacuate following a massive 8.1 earthquake in the Kermadec Islands.
At 1.25pm, the National Emergency Management Agency said the threat level had been downgraded as the largest waves had passed. Video shows wave surges hitting areas like Tokomaru Bay on the East Coast.
Just after 3pm Aucklanders were advised that the threat of damaging tsunami waves had passed for the majority of the region and at 3.43pm, the entire national advisory was lifted.
Emergency Management Minister Kiri Allan said while there were no longer restrictions on going to the beach - alert-levels willing - she urged people to continue to be cautious.
Hundreds of workers, students and residents headed to higher ground after a third, massive Pacific earthquake this morning - and a tsunami threat that affected much of the Northland, Bay of Plenty, East Coast and upper West Coast coastlines.
Residents were told to move immediately to higher ground after the magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck off the Kermadec Islands, 1000km northeast of New Zealand, at 8.28am (NZT).
There was gridlock in cities such as Whangārei and on other roads around the affected regions but roads are clearing.
"People near coast from the Bay of Islands to Whangārei, from Matata to Tolaga Bay, and Great Barrier Island must move immediately to nearest high ground, out of all tsunami evacuation zones, or as far inland as possible," the National Emergency Management Agency alerted at 8.45am.
Just before 10am, it tweeted the following:
"Tsunami warning: Areas under land and marine threat:
"The West Coast of the North Island from Cape Reinga to Ahipara.
"The East Coast of the North Island from Cape Reinga to Whangārei, from Matata to Tolaga Bay including Whakatāne and Opotiki.
"And Great Barrier Island."
Roger Ball, NEMA acting director, told Newstalk ZB's Kerre McIvor that waves would be hitting in the far north about 10am.
He said a tsunami was a strong surge of water, similar to a rushing inwards high tide.
Surges of 1-3 metres had been expected, which on top of high tides, could be dangerous, Ball said.
Ball said evacuating residents was a massive inconvenience, but it was not done lightly.
"It can take lives, and cause great damage. We want people to take this seriously."
Ball said police focus was on public safety and making sure people were looked after. He said people in areas who needed to evacuate had been sent emergency mobile alerts.
Thousands of residents left homes, workplaces and schools to get to higher ground, with reports of heavy traffic in centres such as Whangarei and Whakatane. There were reports of people at the beach in Tologa Bay, with cameras.
Businesses in central Whangarei were evacuated and employees advised to go to higher ground.
A central Whangarei worker earlier this morning said it was packed in town as people tried to evacuate. "There were heaps of people standing on the street outside their workplaces."
A tsunami alert siren sounded in the Whangārei suburb of Onerahi.
Whangarei Intermediate School evacuated, with pupils walking to higher ground at the cycle track near their school.
People were being told to walk, run or cycle if possible to reduce the chance of getting stuck in traffic.
The National Emergency Management Agency says people should not return to low-lying coastal areas until the all-clear is given by Civil Defence.
According to USGS the latest quake to hit off the Kermedec Islands was magnitude 8.1 and 19.4km deep.
This was the third and largest quake above magnitude seven to hit the Pacific region this morning.
A 7.4 quake struck near Raoul Island in the Kermadecs at 6.41am - and many New Zealanders were shaken awake by a magnitude 7.1 quake off the North Island's east coast at 2.27am.
Both of the earlier quakes triggered Civil Defence tsunami warnings that were later lifted but the third quake sparked the strongest warnings.
Ōhope resident Leslie Peake said traffic was "bumper to bumper" all the way down the main drag Harbour Rd this morning and there were "huge queues of people evacuating".
She said the mood was highly "stressful" and she and her husband would not be getting to higher ground for a while as they waited in traffic.
Hills across the town were "full" with people seen sitting at the top looking out at the ocean, she said.
She said she had been in her bedroom when she received the alert and saw it pop up on the television so she and her husband loaded up their car with their cat and dog.
"We thought maybe we should get moving."
This morning's quake had been really strong where Peake was and she said it had been "really rocking and rolling" and "went on for ages".
"It was really rattling for some time."
Whakatane mayor Judy Turner says the town was "stunned" by the calls to evacuate.
People sought higher ground or attempted to head inland away from the coast. Turner has sought higher ground.
"I have heard there is traffic congestion, so people are concerned about that and hope people will be patient and not get too carried away," she said.
Turner was aware of parents being concerned about their children at schools around the town but asked they trust their schools evacuation protocols.
She was not aware of which parts of the town would be under threat if a tsunami struck.
Ōpōtiki mayor Lyn Riesterer says the town was evacuating following the order to move to higher ground.
She said most of the coastal Bay of Plenty town had to evacuate.
"Most people are under way, all moving out," Riesterer said. "All of the alerts went off on mobile phones at the same time so everyone is moving.
"People know where to go. They either head towards Gisborne or they come up to Hospital Hill."
Ōpōtiki had a population of about 4800 according to the 2018 census and is located on the coast, with the Waioeka River and the Otara River surrounding the town.
"I think people are [well prepared] ... but it's about making sure all the people get the message and move on out."
While the Kermedec Islands are expected to fare the worst, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Nuie, Pitcarin Island, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Wallis and Fortuna and New Zealand are alll in the firing line.
A tsunami warning has been issued for the whole of American Samoa as a result of the quake activity here.
The US National Weather Service Pago Pago issued the alert shortly before 9am NZT.
"All residents along the coasts must evacuate immediately to higher ground immediately."
GREAT BARRIER ISLAND
Radio New Zealand reporter Carol Stiles is on Great Barrier Island and says cars have been moving up Sugar Loaf Hill to get to higher ground since news broke of an evacuation warning for the island.
People who have experienced the latest quake on nearby Raoul Island have described the quake at intensity level 9.
The Department of Conservation has confirmed it currently has no staff, contractors, or researchers on Raoul Island.
A 7.4m earthquake near the Kermadec Islands sparked another Civil Defence tsunami activity advisory, following an earlier, massive jolt off the New Zealand east coast that woke thousands of Kiwis.
Authorities issued a national advisory at 7.30am on Friday, warning people of tsunami activity near the Kermadec Islands. It followed a 7.4 magnitude earthquake off Raoul Island, the largest of the islands, at 6.41am.
"We expect New Zealand coastal areas to experience strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges at the shore," said the National Emergency Management Agency.
"People in or near the sea in the following areas should move out of the water, off beaches and shore areas and away from harbours, rivers and estuaries."
The advisory covers east coast areas of Northland - from the Bay of Islands to Whāngārei.
Just after 8.30am, the agency said: "GNS Science continue to assess the tsunami threat from the M7.4 Kermadec Islands earthquake at 6:41am. At this time there is no new information. We will provide a further update within the next hour."
NEMA said there was no need to evacuate other areas, unless directly advised to by local Civil Defence authorities.
The latest jolt followed an earlier earthquake that struck at 2.27am about 95km east of Te Araroa on the North Island's East Coast, causing "severe" shaking throughout much of the country.
Land and marine warnings that followed the 7.1 earthquake were later lifted and people were told they could return to their homes. So far, there have been no reports of injuries or major damage.
GeoNet had received more than 52,000 "felt" reports from people across the country.
"Our network of seismographs clearly show the shaking from the mainshock, and aftershocks throughout New Zealand," GeoNet said.
"The earthquake is in a similar area to the 7.1 East Cape earthquake in 2016, an area familiar with larger earthquakes with 40 events over M5.0 in the past 10 years."
The area along the east coast of the North Island and north of East Cape is one of the more seismically active regions of New Zealand. The seismicity is associated with the Pacific Plate pushing - or subducting - beneath the Australian Plate, under the North Island.
Trains were halted and lines across eastern parts of the North Island are now closed ahead of track inspection for possible quake damage.
People in Auckland, Wellington and even Christchurch all reported feeling the quake.
"She was a beauty, it really shook. I'm quite frightened, I've got no idea if there's going to be a tsunami, it was massive," Rex from Gisborne told Newstalk ZB's Bruce Russell. "It's the biggest I've felt in a long, long time and I'm 80."
In tears on Newstalk ZB, Helen in the Chatham Islands said: "It's the biggest one I've ever felt. It went on and on and on. I'm in the old stone house and I didn't know where to stand because it's all rock. I've never felt one so big - it must be massive across New Zealand. It died down and then went on and on again."
Janice in Napier told the station: "I'm still shaking. I was lying in bed ... and the next minute, the quake comes in and it lasted for ages. The biggest one I've felt. This was one jolt and it kept going. I eventually got up and sat under the doorway, oh my God."
Harry in New Plymouth told Newstalk ZB: "That was a bit of a doozy. I felt it as clear as if it was happening underneath. It woke me up... I have the map in front of me, she certainly was a jolt. To be that far away and it still got to us. If you are near the water folks, get away."
Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz said it was a big shake. "Everyone was awake, our Civil Defence teams got into action immediately to make sure everyone was safe and sound."
She said she's incredibly proud of the locals who acted fast. "Gisborne people, Tairāwhiti people, when there's an earthquake and it is long or strong, they self-evacuate. Because you cannot wait for locally-created earthquakes, you need to self-evacuate."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has posted on Instagram: "Hope everyone is ok out there - especially on the East Coast who would have felt the full force of that earthquake". She repeated the message on Facebook:
KiwiRail chief operating officer Todd Moyle said the network was shut soon after the tremor struck, from Napier to Wairoa, Tauranga to Kawerau, and from Kawerau to Murupara, pending inspections by track staff.
"Two log services were halted while we worked to ensure the safety of our network, however both have now resumed their service."
No other freight services were affected.
Moyle said the inspection of the Napier line would take place later today as the next train wasn't scheduled to run until tomorrow.
There have been 15 smaller earthquakes since the 2.27am jolt, ranging from magnitude 5.4 to 4.4, also centred near East Cape.
These aftershocks are common following big quakes in the region - and those which followed a 7.2 earthquake in 1995 continued for around two years.
In 1947, there were two earthquakes off the coast of Gisborne with magnitude of about 7.0, which produced tsunamis with heights of several metres
The National Emergency Management Agency says residents who evacuated after the early morning tsunami warning can return to their homes.
"Based on current scientific advice and information from coastal tsunami gauges there is no longer a threat to land areas. People who have evacuated can now return home," the agency said in a tweet just after 5am.
"There is no need to evacuate other areas unless directly advised by local civil defence authorities. Coastal inundation (flooding of land areas near the shore) is no longer expected as a result of this event."
And just after 6am, it said the threat of strong and unusual currents had passed.
"Based on GNS Science's modelling and ocean observations on tide gauges and the New Zealand DART Buoys, our science advice is that the threat of strong and unusual currents has now passed for all parts of New Zealand including the Chatham Islands," it tweeted.
The agency just after 5am said there was no need to evacuate other areas unless advised by local civil defence authorities.
Coastal flooding was no longer expected.
The earthquake was originally reported as a 7.4m quake, then downgraded.
Fire and Emergency NZ had this morning implemented tsunami procedures across eastern coastal regions as a precaution.
Many people across New Zealand were woken by an emergency notification on their phones this morning activated by the government agency overseeing the unfolding tsunami threat.
Bay of Plenty Civil Defence said an emergency mobile alert had been issued by the National Emergency Management Agency warning of coastal flooding in the East Coast of the North Island from the east of Cape Runaway to Tologa Bay.
The alert had been sent to residents in those areas.
But not everyone in the tsunami zone reported getting the alert - while a person living in the South Island reported getting up to 17 alerts on an iPhone.
A man living in Tolaga Bay said he did not receive any emergency texts or tsunami alerts.
He said while there were social media posts on Twitter and Facebook from local civil defence about the need to evacuate, a lot of elderly people in the region did not have access to this technology.
"We need alarms. We need coastal tsunami alert systems that go off," he told Newstalk ZB's Bruce Russell.
He said scared families had taken refuge up a nearby hill.
According to the NEMA website emergency mobile alerts are messages about emergencies sent by authorised emergency agencies to capable mobile phones.
The alerts can be targeted to areas affected by serious hazards and will only be sent when there is a serious threat to life, health or property, and, in some cases, for test purposes.