Tsunami evacuation plan kept under wraps

New Brighton residents are furious a tsunami evacuation plan for the area, which could have prevented the traffic chaos, was kept under wraps.

The Star has learned police had an evacuation plan prepared which detailed things like which streets people in the coastal areas would be directed down.

But because the community was not told in advance, there was chaos on the roads when the tsunami sirens were sounded, leaving some people trapped in traffic for more than an hour.

Some drivers used both sides of the road when traffic was coming in the other direction, roundabouts were blocked, and people trying to find different routes to escape traffic jams clogged the roads even further.

South Brighton Residents’ Association chairman Hugo Kristinsson said people needed to know the plan in advance, because emergency services often couldn’t reach the area immediately.

EERIE: The sound of the tsunami sirens as they droned around coastal areas on November 14, after the massive 7.8 earthquake. 

He believed the plan could have helped, if residents had known about it.

“It’s not useful to anyone if it’s locked away in a drawer somewhere,” he said.

Police Canterbury district operations commander Craig McKay said a list of the best exits to use in an evacuation was available online, on the city council website.

But they are difficult to find, and most residents did not know about them.

Inspector McKay said the plan had been developed for a distant source tsunami, where there would be time for emergency services to arrive and manage the evacuation.

There would not be time to roll it out if a local earthquake triggered a tsunami, he said.

Some streets could be made one-way to get people out faster if there was a lot of warning about a tsunami, but that would not work in a locally-triggered tsunami, he said.

“If it happens in the middle of the day people will need to get kids out of school or help elderly or vulnerable family members, so we have got to have two way traffic,” he said.

Civil Defence has also been criticised for its lack of response after the failed evacuation, as it did not respond to calls and emails left by residents’ groups over the past three weeks.

City council head of Civil Defence Alicia Palmer said she was not aware of any messages which had not been responded to.

She said community meetings with residents in the area were planned for early next year.

Community groups spoken to by The Star said that was too late, as people were worried about the immediate risk of a tsunami triggered by an aftershock.

Some are already taking matters into their own hands and organising networks of community volunteers, because they believe the official response will take too long.

Ms Palmer said it would be difficult to organise meetings earlier because she and other staff had been busy with the response in North Canterbury.

But she said Civil Defence would try to send staff to any meetings organised by the community or phone community groups to discuss issues or help develop community plans.

She personally went to a residents’ meeting in Sumner this week to speak about the evacuation, after being invited by the Sumner Volunteer Fire Brigade.

New Brighton Volunteer Fire Brigade secretary Ruth Kenny said the brigade was concerned, but had not been asked by residents to hold a similar meeting.

A national review of the response has been promised which will look into problems like the communication failure which meant National Civil Defence was telling people along the coast to evacuate while local Civil Defence was not.

It will also look into why the tsunami sirens were only activated about two hours after the earthquake.