'When it's long and strong, get gone' - Whangara tsunami evacuees

By Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes

A 7.3m earthquake woke up New Zealand at around 2.30am this morning, and East Coast residents felt it the most with the epicentre 85km east of Te Araroa. 

In the words of the renowned Ngati Porou haka, 'it is Ruaumoko who is rumbling', and Ruaumoko was felt by the families on the East Coast this morning. In Te Araroa families self-evacuated to high ground as they were closest to the first earthquake.

In Gisborne, families did the same. Thousands flocked to high-ground, where parking areas and roads were packed. Families didn't wait for the alert messages, taking it upon themselves to self-evacuate on the basis that if it's long and strong, they need to get moving.

And so it was an unexpected early morning for whanau to rise and climb to high ground.

Lisa Maniapoto, Principal at Whangara School says, “We woke up early this morning, the first quake was very long and strong. We told families in Whangara to go straight to this hill, to the farm of Whangara B5, and meet here while we wait for updates from Civil Defence.”

The Whangara community self-evacuated, due to the high-risk posed by the threat of a tsunami.

“We have to acknowledge families were to come here, bringing their dogs and their nannies. We're really pleased because this is the first time all of the families have come together under this initiative of evacuation, so that's good”, says Maniapoto.

Tatai Kutia, Civil Defence representative for the Whangara Community, says, “Everyone from the main highway down to the main village are here, because that's the most vulnerable people here. But everyone from the high points aren't here, they've stayed at home because there's no threat to them.”

Earthquakes are not a new phenomenon in Te Tairawhiti, with a major earthquake shaking the region in 2007 and again in 2011. The Whangara community have become accustomed to the emergency response plan.

Lisa Maniapoto says, “Last year the families here started to organise plans for earthquake response, and tsunami. We held a meeting, and that's good families know when it's long and strong they have to go.”

Tatai Kutia says, “Most of our kaumatua have whānau at home with them, so they were able to bring them up with them in their vehicles But at the moment they've just gone up the road to the shepherd’s house to have cuppa tea where it's a bit more comfortable for them.”

The main message to the community is not to wait around but to follow the strategy. If the earthquake is long and strong then make for high ground.

Lisa Maniapoto says, “You need to look after your families. If the tsunami doesn't eventuate that's fine, the families are safe. Don't wait for the Civil Defence, don't wait for the Facebook message from all your family, because the families houses are so close to the sea. So we're overjoyed that families came up in their pyjamas and their dogs, it's good.”

Tatai Kutia says, “If it's long and strong, get gone. Don't wait for an update, you're better to be hanging around up here waiting to be stood down than sitting at home wondering should I or should I not. Because if it did happen it'd be too late, it might be a little bit of a hoha but it's better to be safe than sorry. So that's what we've adopted in Whangara. Don't wait to be told, get up here, and then everyone can be told at once, rather than sending messages around by social media and stuff, because there's a lot of mixed messages. I'm in direct link with Civil Defence headquarters, so as the updates are coming to me I hand them straight out and that should be the only people that we listen to really.”

But in other areas, safety precautions were being enforced.

Sergeant Isaac Ngatai says, “It brings back memories from the early 80's. I remember there was a tsunami warning, and we went to Kaiti Hill, looked down and all along the beach people had parked their vehicles to watch the tsunami coming. Unfortunately, we saw a bit of that today hence the reason why we're getting out here to get people off those beaches. So it's that precautionary thing and the last thing we want is them to become a part of that tsunami.”

Police and Civil Defence say the safety of individuals and their families is paramount.

Gisborne District Council published a Civil Defence update at 1.30pm today, confirming that the tsunami threat for north of Tolaga Bay Uawa had been lifted and that people were allowed to return back to their homes.

People are encouraged to stay out of the water including the sea, rivers, estuaries and that includes boaties.

Civil Defence also encourage people to stay off beaches and shore areas, and to not to go sightseeing.