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Pacific Tsunami Centre admits alerts too alarmist

Published: 7:15AM Thursday July 07, 2011 Source: ONE News

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre says it is now likely to drop the word "warning" from its tsunami alerts, conceding the language is too alarmist.
The decision comes after a tsunami warning following a big earthquake off the Kermadec Islands, 1100 kilometres north of Auckland this morning.

When the 7.6 magnitude quake hit just after 7.00am, the Pacific Tsunami Centre in Hawaii issued a warning that a tsunami had formed. Despite New Zealand Civil Defence being more cautious about a potential threat, it put the country on high alert.

As local experts analysed the data, the potential threat was downgraded.  

Dr Stuart Weinstein, Assistant Director of the centre, said the change has come because a number of international communities have expressed concern the language is too alarmist.

The change will not happen overnight but Weinstein said it will happen around 2013.

But the message right now seems to be that no-one knows New Zealand waters like Civil Defence, so they should be the final word on threats and warnings around this country's coast.

Civil Defence has told ONE News it is better to rely on its own emergency assessment than those by the Pacific Warning Centre in Hawaii.

Civil Defence national controller David Coetzee said: "We as the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management issues the official statement for New Zealand, not the Pacific centre.

Weinstein's statement also said that a review is now underway to streamline processes and communications.

That review is aware of criticism over Civil Defence response times in the past, such as after the 2009 tsunami in Samoa.

At the time, Civil Defence spokesperson Colin Feslier in Wellington told TV ONE's Breakfast: "At the moment we are classifying the tsunami but we are classifying it as rumour. We haven't got them confirmed."

But Breakfast had already spoken to people in Samoa who had said they were running for their lives and had seen people washed away.

How the alert unfolded

The waters of Tutukaka Marina in Northland rose rapidly this morning and boats heeded the harbour master's advice to head for deeper waters, with the threat of a tsunami still very real.

John Warren, Tutukaka Marina master, told ONE News the first notification they had was at about 7.15, and at about quarter to eight the tsunami siren went off.

He said half a dozen or so boats moved out to sea from the marina. A couple of them had tried to get back in later in the morning but the surges at the harbour entrance made it unsafe and they went back out into Pacific Bay.

Warren said the marina is currently being rebuilt and one pier which is the process of being constructed right now was particularly vulnerable because while the floating pontoons are in the water there are no piles holding it there.

"And so Total Marine, the company that's building it, very quickly got out and roped it up as best they could. And from then on it was just a matter of hoping the surges wouldn't be too bad."

Right around the country, people woke to news of a big quake in the Kermadecs, with its epicentre just 12 kilometres from Raoul Island.

ONE News talked with a New Zealand Department of Conservation team member, Jes Clark, at Raoul Island via Skype.

"Tim the mechanic was looking out the window and said he could see aerials and trees shaking. I was at the hostel where we live, and the building was rattling around quite a bit, but nothing was falling off shelves and stuff," Clark said.

Civil Defence activated its bunker in the Beehive and issued a tsunami threat advisory.

Ninety minutes later Coetzee said: "Right, so we have just issued a cancellation for the national warning."

People still reported minor tidal surges of up to half a metre in the Bay of Islands and 30 centimetres in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.

"It can push the vessel off course, especially in narrow channels, close to rocks," said Mark Levers of the Coastguard Communications Centre. "You can be heading in one direction and suddenly find yourself heading in another.

Changing currents could create havoc for some time yet.

"Currents such as this in the past, for events of this size, around the seven to eight magnitude, have carried on for a number of days afterwards," Levers said.

So, any threat to land may have passed but the danger at sea remains real.

Civil Defence is expecting there to be unusually strong tidal surges and currents until tomorrow morning.

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