‘All the birds just left’ – the earthquake that forced people off the coasts this morning

By Te Ao - Māori News

Medlands Beach, one of the lower-lying areas of Great Barrier Island had to be evacuated this morning along with Claris, another low-lying area

On Great Barrier Island building contractor Tuheka Hetet-Schmidt was enjoying a quiet morning first thing after a fantail on his roof had raised a ruckus last night and his whanau didn’t get much sleep.

He says he was listening to the usual dawn chorus of birds “when all the birds just left.” He thinks that must have been the same time as the 8.1 earthquake hit northeast of New Zealand in the Kermadec Islands.

And a short time later the tsunami alert went out to move to higher ground – in his case one of the high spots in Tryphena. “We’re on the western side looking to Auckland which is apparently safer but on the other side Claris and Medlands were evacuated, with probably more than 500 people affected.”

Hetet-Schmidt has only been involved in one other tsunami alert – in 2010 which he says was not as serious.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, Vicky Kyan, a native bathing guide, heard police sirens as they warned Medlands Beach and Claris residents to evacuate.

Watching the swells

Talking to Māori Television from the hill above Medlands Beach, Kyan says she is with a big group of people who live in the areas. She says her area mostly had holiday baches with about 30 to 35 families living near the beach and the hills above it. But she said there were also people who had stayed through Covid-19.

“We’re looking at the swells from the ocean from here.”

Kyan says surfers in the group on the hill say they have seen some surges in the water.

She says the group is waiting both with anticipation and some anxiety.

Normally Keyan works by the sea and also teaches native bathing skills online. But she too has been affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns and lack of tourists. Still, she is hopeful once the tsunami danger is over she can prepare for a corporate group that’s coming next week.

She says she has taken one lesson from today so far - have an emergency pack ready. "It's a bit of a wakeup call."

Watching boats leave

Northland Regional Council maritime manager Peter Thomas, who is based in Opua, talked to Te Ao Māori News earlier this morning from Opua Hill where he was sitting with a “big crowd” looking over the Bay of Islands.

He says there was a good response to the Civil Defence sirens going off and people had quickly headed up the hill.

A number of boats and ferries already on the water were moving away from the area, he says. “It’s the safest thing to do for those already on the water.”

The Hokianga Ferry service has been suspended until further notice as people wait for the tsunami alert to be over.

Meanwhile, communities around the top of the North Island evacuated to nearby hills including parts of Kaitaia and Whangārei.

People at Russell, for example, were directed to Tapeka Point and others went to Russell Heights. Te Tii, a seaside village north of Kerikeri evacuated to the local school.

Diane Wikaire and those in Russell have been evacuated to Tapeka Point. Video source: Phone footage from Diane Wikaire

Flooding expected

The National Emergency Agency has warned coastal inundation (flooding of land areas) is expected in 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 Whakatane and Opotiki and Great Barrier Island.

It says strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges near the shore are expected in the following areas. This means a threat to beach, harbour, estuary and small boat activities.

The West Coast of the North Island from Ahipara to Makara including the West Coast of Auckland, Manukau Harbour, New Plymouth, Whanganui and the Kapiti Coast.

The East Coast of the North Island from Whangārei, Waitematā Harbour and Tauranga, from Tolaga Bay to Lake Ferry including Gisborne and Napier.

Later this morning cellphone users in Auckland were sent a Civil Defence tsunami notice saying there was a beach and marine threat for all Auckland coastal areas. They were asked to stay off beaches sand shores and stay out of the water.

Civil Defence Minister Kiritapu Allen held a media conference later this morning and asked evacuated people to wait on the hills until the all-clear was given. She said this might mean a wait until late this afternoon.