Large quakes spark Pacific-wide tsunami alerts

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PORT VILA, Vanuatu, March 5, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – Tsunami sirens rang out in
coastal communities across the South Pacific Friday, as a cluster of powerful
earthquakes triggered warnings for tens of thousands of residents to rush to
higher ground.

Tsunami alerts were issued in countries as far apart as Peru and Australia,
after a trio of large quakes measuring 7.4, 7.3 and 8.1, plus dozens of
powerful aftershocks, struck near New Zealand’s remote Kermadec Islands.

No damage or injuries were reported from the quakes.

But authorities warned waves of up to three metres (11 feet) were possible
in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, where residents in the capital Port Vila
received SMS messages ordering them to “move to higher grounds.”

Eyewitnesses in the city said a small initial surge was visible, but did
not appear to cause any damage.

In Noumea, capital of the French territory of New Caledonia, warning sirens
sounded.

Emergency services spokesman Alexandre Rossignol took to local radio to
warn people to “leave beach areas and stop all water activities and should
not pick their children up at schools to avoid creating traffic jams.”

Several other regions were warned of lesser, but still potentially
dangerous surges, including New Zealand where an evacuation order for a
swathe of coastal communities was cancelled after a few hours.

Fiona Rudsdale, who runs the Whangarei Central Holiday Park on New
Zealand’s North Island, slept though the initial quake but was woken by
tsunami warning sirens.

She immediately began organising the evacuation of around 30 guests from
the caravan park to a nearby hilltop.

“We took them up to the top of Morningside Park, you can look down on the
town from there,” she told AFP.

“We put on some food and drink, it all went pretty smoothly. You’ve still
got a couple of idiots in town drinking around but mostly everyone’s behaving
themselves and doing what they’re told.”

Emergency Services Minister Kiri Allan said the entire town of Opotiki,
about 4,000 people, had emptied out as coastal communities responded to the
warnings.

“Very swiftly people pulled themselves together, got their backpacks, got
into cars and congregated either inland or up high and are now watching it
unfold,” she said.

The local coastguard ordered hundreds of boats still on the ocean to deeper
waters as a precaution.

Thousands of kilometres away on the the French Island Tahiti there were
heavy traffic jams as police prevented people from travelling to potentially
impacted areas.

Some people were mildly dehydrated during the wait, and local authorities
have since lifted the tsunami warning.

– The earth moved –

The largest of the quakes struck around 1,000 kilometres (640 miles) off
the New Zealand coast at 8:28 am (1928 Thursday GMT), the US Geological
Survey said.

It was preceded by two seismic jolts that were also enormously powerful, in
an unusually strong cluster even for the Pacific ring of fire, where the
Earth’s tectonic plates collide.

“On average, a magnitude eight or larger earthquake only occurs once a year
anywhere in the world, so this is a significant earthquake and at a depth and
magnitude to potentially generate a tsunami,” said Adam Pascale, chief
scientist at ESS Earth Sciences.

New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency said the remoteness of
the quakes did not minimise their potential impact.

“The earthquake may not have been felt in some of these areas, but
evacuation should be immediate as a damaging tsunami is possible,” it said.

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand was among those given an
early morning wake-up.

“Hope everyone is ok out there — especially on the East Coast who would
have felt the full force of that earthquake,” she posted on Instagram after
the inital shake at 2:27 am.

The South Pacific nation recently marked the 10th anniversary of the
Christchurch earthquake, when a 6.3 tremor resulted in 185 deaths in the
South Island city.