As the bustle of the first few days after this week’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake begins to settle, questions are turning toward the confused tsunami messages sent in the wee hours of Monday morning.
After the earthquake struck at 12.02am and automated estimates initially estimated the magnitude as 6.8 (it was later upgraded to 7.5 and several days later to 7.8). A Civil Defence advisory at 12.48am announced no tsunami threat to New Zealand. Minutes later, at 1am, The Ministy of Civil Defence & Emergency Management (MCDEM) issued a tsunami warning for all southern coastal areas, but made no mention of the east coast.
As Toby Manhire wrote in the NZ Herald, “this was a stress test of the system, and the system failed”. A NZ Herald editorial wrote that there could be “no room for confusion or second-guessing” when it came to emergency information.
MCDEM responded to Manhire’s questions with a statement saying people shouldn’t “sit around waiting for an official notification” – a message that evidently hasn’t been received by a general public that wanted a clear alert or not on Monday morning.
Instead that confusion and second-guessing abounded. Dominion Post feature writer Nikki MacDonald detailed her early morning evacuation and the frustration of not knowing what was happening.
“As a journalist, you know where to look for up-to-date emergency information. But even I struggled to get any kind of clarity. At 12.27am, civil defence was assessing the tsunami threat. At 12.37am they gave the all clear.
“At 1.01am they changed their mind, declaring a threat for the South Island’s eastern coast. By about 1.20am, the nerves and aftershocks had calmed enough to consider going back to bed.”
Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee told The Dominion Post that the confusion was unacceptable and emergency management systems could be overhauled to ensure there was not a repeat of Monday morning’s chaos.
Meanwhile, former California State University professor of geology Dr Chris Buckley told Radio NZ that there was never any risk of big waves after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Dr Buckley, who now lives in Northland, said there was no reason to advise people to flee to higher ground and too many false alarms would cause people to lose faith in the warning system.
On the other hand, GeoNet’s director Dr Ken Gledhill wrote in a post that response was limited by lack of a 24/7 monitoring centre. He praised those who self-evacuated in the absence of clear instruction.
Media coverage of the tsunami warning system includes:
NZ Herald: Wave goodbye to your tsunami alert
Dominion Post: Civil Defence overhaul ‘inevitable’ after tsunami warning confusion: Government
Radio NZ: There was never a risk of a tsunami, says seismologist
Dominion Post: Tsunami watch – a frustrating night of ever-changing advice
NZ Herald: Editorial: Tsunami advice must be improved
Marlborough Express: Marlborough residents scramble for advice after tsunami warning
Southland Times: Residents concerned at Taieri Mouth civil defence methods
The Press: Coastal Christchurch residents criticise delay in tsunami warning system
Dominion Post: ‘Mixed messages’ over tsunami evacuation alert in Hawke’s Bay
GeoNet: A Message from GeoNet’s Director: Responding to the Monster