Thousands of New Zealanders allowed to return home after tsunami alert

Residents on North Island instructed to evacuate after three earthquakes felt across the country in one day

Thousands of people have been told they can return home after being evacuated from coastal areas of New Zealand’s North Island in the wake of a powerful 8.1-magnitude earthquake and tsunami warning.

The New Zealand National Emergency Management Agency (Nema) issued a national warning on Friday morning, saying people in many coastal areas of the North Island “must move immediately to the nearest high ground, out of all tsunami evacuation zones, or as far inland as possible. Do not stay at home”.

The US Geological Survey said the larger quake, which followed two smaller ones, was located near the remote Kermadec Islands at a depth of 12 miles (19km).

The US tsunami warning system also said the quake could cause waves reaching between 1m (3ft) and 3m (10ft) in height in French Polynesia, and waves of up to 1m in Niue, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands.

John Fitzgerald, left, on holidays with his wife Rita and friends, scans the horizon from high ground for any sign of a tsunami near Waitangi, New Zealand, Friday, March 5, 2021. A powerful magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck in the ocean off the coast of New Zealand prompting thousands of people to evacuate and triggering tsunami warnings across the South Pacific. (Peter De Graaf/New Zealand Herald via AP)

Holidaymakers scan the horizon from high ground for any sign of a tsunami near Waitangi, New Zealand Photograph: Peter De Graaf/AP

However, Nema announced at around 1pm local time that the government’s science agency had informed it that the largest waves had passed and people were allowed to return to their homes with the proviso that they avoid the ocean and beaches.

“GNS Science has advised that the largest waves have now passed, and therefore the threat level is now downgraded to a beach and marine threat for all areas which were previously under land and marine threat,” Nema said.

“All people who evacuated can now return. The advice remains, for all areas under beach and marine threat, to stay off beach and shore areas.”

The area under threat was further downgraded at around 3pm to the North Cape from Ahipara to the Bay of Islands, the east coast of the North Island from Cape Runaway to Tolaga Bay, and Great Barrier Island, and the Chatham Islands. There is no tsunami threat in all other areas.

The original evacuation warning came after the third and largest quake of the day hit New Zealand. A magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit the country in the early hours of the morning, which was followed by a magnitude 7.4 quake in the Pacific.

The closest large town to the epicentre was Gisborne, with a population of about 35,500.

“Hope everyone is OK out there – especially on the east coast, who would have felt the full force of that earthquake,” the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, posted on Instagram.

Speaking to media later, she said she “absolutely” felt the first earthquake. Her first thought was “Bugger it”, she said.

There were no immediate reports of serious damage or casualties, but Nema had earlier told people near the west coast of the North Island from Cape Reinga to Ahipara and on the east coast from Cape Reinga to Whangarei and from Matata to Tolaga Bay to move as far inland as possible.

Radio New Zealand reported that Tolaga Bay, north-east of Gisborne, was a “ghost town” as residents headed for higher ground. It was a long day for residents, who had been asked to evacuate earlier then had that warning cancelled, before another warning followed at 8.45am.

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