Ashleigh Wyse is among Kiwis hugging their loved ones tighter today after thousands evacuated homes across the country amid fears waves would hit coastal towns and cities.
Three offshore quakes — including a massive 8.1 rupture near the Kermadec Islands, 1000km northeast of New Zealand — triggered tsunami alerts yesterday morning stretching across the country's north, east and western coastlines.
Coastal residents from Ahipara in the Far North to Whāngārei and Tokamaru Bay on the East Cape grabbed horses, cats, dogs and children and scrambled to hilltops as sirens rang out below.
Ōpōtiki in the Bay of Plenty was among towns entirely evacuated, while Civil Defence officials sent emergency text warnings to multiple districts, including to Auckland's 1.5 million residents.
Tides surged inland in some areas — including a dramatic surge captured on camera at Tokamaru Bay — but the threat had passed by early afternoon.
Yet that didn't discount the stress felt by the likes of Wyse, who grabbed 3-year-old daughter Annalise and their pets, and dashed from her Onerahi home, near the tsunami zone close to Whāngārei .
Hours later, waiting in the safety of the local community hall, she still hadn't heard from her other 12-year-old daughter, who had been at school.
"I just want to have her here with me and give her a big hug," she said.
"My anxiety is through the roof."
The scare highlighted the serious, unpredictable and relatively rare threat of tsunami New Zealand's coastal residents live under.
Officials yesterday said evacuation orders had not been given "lightly", but were instead guided by the deadly impact massive tsunamis have had in Indonesia and Japan.
New Zealand had so far experienced about 10 tsunamis surging higher than 5m since 1840.
Offshore quakes and volcanoes far out in the Pacific or Southern Oceans also needed to be powerful to send tsunamis barrelling into the country.
Yet the major 8.1 quake striking near the Kermadec Islands at 8.28am yesterday was indeed significant for its rare size and the shallow depth of its rupture, Victoria University's professor Tim Stern said.
It was triggered after a 7.3 quake struck at 2.27am, about 95km east of Te Araroa in New Zealand's East Cape, and a 7.4 was recorded at 6.41am near Raoul Island, also in the Kermadec group.
GNS Science seismologist John Ristau described the two big Kermadec quakes as "very much the same earthquake" — and it was most likely the 7.4 one triggered the 8.1 quake.
The quakes ultimately led authorities to declare alerts stretching from the South Island's West Coast to Auckland's western beaches and right across the top of the North Island through to the Bay of Plenty and East Coast.
Ora Barlow-Tukaki, who lives in Te Kaha in the east Bay of Plenty, woke to the rumblings of the first quake east of New Zealand at 2.30am, ready to blame her dog.
"I woke from a deep sleep, thought the dog was scratching on the bed but took about 10 seconds to realise what was going on," she said.
"This was a good one. Nothing fell off the wall, but everything was moving side to side."
The small coastal settlement was near where the first waves from the Kermadec Islands quake had been tipped to hit New Zealand about 9.49am.
That and the series of tsunami warnings led locals to be on alert and check on each other to ensure everyone moved to higher ground, Barlow-Tukaki said.
Leslie Peake from the Bay of Plenty's Ōhope — 100km southwest of Te Kaha — joined hundreds sitting on the area's Kohi Pt Lookout Rd.
She told the Herald from her vantage point the sea "hadn't changed a lot" and they were just "waiting for the all-clear to go home".
Community members, meanwhile, brought food to those waiting, including toasted sandwiches and fruit, which was lovely, Peake said.
Others in Gisborne, meanwhile, complained they slept through the danger, saying a Civil Defence alert message sent at 5.20am was three hours after the 7.1-quake rumbled offshore.
Some called the communication from local authorities slow, and a "system failure".
Elsewhere in the north, text messages and sirens rang out in multiple coastal towns and cities.
National MP Shane Reti was among those in Whāngārei , esconced on a hill, where he was joined by teachers and school children and where traffic jams were triggered by lines of evacuating motorists.
Ahipara Horse Treks owner Lohnet Murray, in the Far North, close to Kaitaia, had to evacuate 10 horses and two miniature ponies to higher ground.
Murray called in six staff to help ride and lead the horses to a paddock on the hill.
"We rode some and led some and put the two minis on a trailer," she said.
"We had a full day's bookings and had to cancel the treks today."
Evacuees at Waitangi Golf Course overlooking Paihia in the Bay of Islands included visiting backpackers, such as Charlotte Ramon from Belgium.
She said she had been oblivious until a friend woke her about 9am, saying: "Dude, didn't you hear the siren? You have to get up."
She had also been phoned by her worried parents wanting to know where she was.
"I said, we're on a hill, sunbathing and playing chess. Some guy even brought his kitten up here. So I've had a tsunami evacuation with a kitten. My life is complete now."
Emergency Management Minister Kiri Allan congratulated coastal residents across the country on their calm, swift and caring actions.