Southerly by David Haywood


A Tsunami False Alarm at 2.00 AM was All I Needed

So now we're living at Cook's beach, and -- having just been rendered homeless twice by earthquakes -- we took time to familiarize ourselves with the Civil Defence Warning System here.

It seemed pretty well-organized. There are signs pointing towards official "Tsunami Evacuation Zones", and a siren that goes off for "more than five minutes" in the event that evacuation is required.

And at 2.00 AM this morning that siren did go off. Was this a tsunami warning? I peered out the window and saw the neighbours piling into their car and then drive off. As I watched, several other vehicles tore down the road at high speed.

We woke the children and inserted them into our car, and still the siren was going. Had it now been five minutes? It seemed like a long time; I wished I'd been measuring it.

We decided that it was sensible to follow the signs to the official tsunami evacuation zone -- presumably there would be other people there who could advise us if this was really a genuine emergency.

Oh, but in an amusing twist, following the evacuation signs for a couple of minutes led us in a giant circle and back to the waterfront. How gaily we laughed!

By now I admit that I was rattled. I was in an unfamiliar place, had no idea where I should be going, and there was -- for all I knew -- a giant wave bearing down on us.

I decided that I should drive the few kilometres along the waterfront to the main road and head for the hills -- how ever far away they were. It has to be said that I was not going slowly at this point. We tore through a 30 km/h roadworks zone, and I noticed that the speedometer was reading 160 km/h.

Eventually, after what seemed almost an unendurably long time, we reached high ground. We tried to get the National Programme on the radio, but there was no reception. Luckily there was a cellphone signal and we checked Twitter -- no trending topics on the subject of a giant tsunami at Cook's Beach.

To double-check I phoned Civil Defence in Coromandel. There was no recorded message advising us of disaster, and the woman who eventually answered the phone declared that a tsunami warning was "News to me".

Sitting in pitch darkness with a sobbing nine-week-old baby, we tried to recreate the sequence of events. Presumably the siren had been the volunteer fire brigade, and the neighbours were members of same, and they (and the other speeding cars) were rushing off to put out a fire somewhere. How embarrassing.

And so we went back to our borrowed bach again -- and reflected that a house on the waterfront sounds really great until the sirens go off.

There are, however, a couple of points that I shall be raising with the council:

1. It doesn't seem to me that siren duration is a great way of distinguishing between a fire callout (which non-firefighters would be well-advised to sleep through) and a tsunami alert (at which everyone should take to their heels and make for high ground). How about a different siren pattern for a tsunami alert, guys?

2. Particularly in a holiday area -- with lots of transient visitors -- you might consider better signage to the evacuation zones. I acknowledge that it is hilarious to lead people who are fleeing a tsunami back to the beach, but (as my schoolteachers used to tell me) there is a time and place for humour.

So now we sit here at 4.00 AM -- feeling slightly stupid -- but unable to shut down all the adrenaline coursing through our bodies.

Mind you, on the upside, it was cool to drive at more than five times the legal speed limit.

Postscript: On reflection, David Haywood wishes to emphasize that the portions of this article dealing with excess speed did not actually occur. It was just something that a guy he met in a pub told him had happened to the guy's other mate. And, no officer, David Haywood can't remember the guy's name -- or even, come to think about it, what pub he was in.

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