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Whakatāne residents may have just 25 minutes to escape tsunami

Whakatāne needs to prepare for a mega-earthquake and resulting tsunami similar in size and strength to the 2011 Japan event, says local GNS researcher Mawera Karetai.

He has planned a series of workshops with GNS seismologists for next month, as he believes most people in the city are “woefully unprepared” for an earthquake.

Scientists studying the Hikurangi subduction zone, just off the east coast of the North Island, predict a large earthquake will occur in the next 50 years, with a one in four chance that it could reach a magnitude of 9.1. .

“When we have a magnitude 9 earthquake, the road network will completely fail. We have to prepare for infrastructure damage, liquefaction, fresh water sources from burst pipes and raw sewage,” he said.

“This district will be completely isolated. All resources will go to the cities.”

He referenced a magnitude 4.5 earthquake off Te Araroa on April 17 which he said “blew up on social media”.

“What we’re predicted to have is 36,000 times stronger than that. We’re looking at potentially severe shaking for three or four minutes. There’s not much left standing at the end of that.”

People should not rely on the road network to escape the resulting tsunami of up to 10 meters high that could arrive within 25 minutes, he said.

“Also, please keep in mind that our escarpment is rotten rock. It falls down if it rains. Therefore, we must find multiple ways to climb the hill, not just rely on the road.”

Karetai has organized a series of four workshops in Whakatāne during the last week of June.

Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi will host the events, in collaboration with GNS Science and Whakatāne High School, over three days. The first of them, Earthquake Day, is aimed at community leaders from organizations such as city councils, schools, police and health agencies.

“That’s going to speak to all the different faults that are at risk for us right now, including the subduction zone that we’re in,” Karetai said.

“Everyone attending Earthquake Day should leave with an action plan for how they will support their staff and community to stay safe.”

Karetai spoke at Whakatāne District Council’s Long Term Plan hearings last month about how alarmed she was that the council had no action plan to evacuate the Whakatāne township following the 2021 tsunami warning in which So many people got into their cars, creating traffic jam.

He said after conversations with some councillors, he felt they were not taking the risk seriously.

A council spokesperson told Local Democracy Reporting that Kaetai’s concerns had been noted and that the council was committed to working with the community and key partner agencies to improve community awareness and understanding of disaster education.

In October last year, it updated public information on tsunami evacuation and delivered 7,000 leaflets to properties in coastal flood zones.

Initial work has begun on a multi-agency project focused on the development of new evacuation processes and procedures for tsunami and flood risks. It is also developing Civil Defense Centers across the district to provide emergency resources to support the community following a natural hazard event.

The Earthquake Day event was born out of Karetai’s work with GNS scientists over the past year on the Our Changing Coast research project, funded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavor Fund.

The project analyzes factors such as vertical land movement and the impact of sea level rise on coastal communities.

As a doctor of psychology with a master’s degree in environmental management, Karetai was asked to research the impacts on young people living in coastal communities across the country.

“The work has grown from there,” Karetai said.

“We look at what worries rangitahi now, where they get their information from and how they can tell if it’s reliable information. That’s important because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

“A lot of their anxiety comes from not knowing where they can go to get real information and how to know if they can trust it.”

Earthquake Day is scheduled for June 25, with the Our Changing Coast workshop for youth on June 26 and for adults on June 27. A talk by GNS Senior Scientist Richard Levy and Earth Scientist Tim Naish on June 26 will discuss sea level rise and their recent trips to Antarctica.

Depending on how well the workshop went, they hoped to roll it out across the New Zealand coast.

Local Democracy Reporting is local journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air

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