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Sixty-second anniversary of tsunami caused by massive Chilean earthquake

Last weekend’s Civil Defence emergency test alert on people’s mobile phones was almost perfectly timed for the 62nd anniversary of the biggest earthquake of the 20th century, if not the biggest ever, which sent a tsunami racing across the Pacific, all the way to Whitianga.

Around 1,600 people died in the 1960 Chilean quake and many more in the tsunami that swept the western seaboard of South America, in fact all the way to Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan.

But in our corner of the world, the tidal waves, as they were called at the time, inspired more entertainment than fear, with people driving to coastal areas in anticipation of seeing one of these enormous waves first hand.

In Whitianga, people rushed out to do a bit of souvenir-hunting on HMS Buffalo which ran aground in a storm in the Bay in 1840, giving its name eponymously to Buffalo Beach.

According to various official records and reports, the first effects of the tsunami were felt along New Zealand’s east coast late in the evening of 23 May, some 12 hours after the earthquake measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale and which had its epicentre near the Chilean town of Valdivia, occurred. Fortunately, no one died in New Zealand, as the waves were relatively benign by the time they reached our shores.

For New Zealanders, rather than something to be feared, the general feeling at the time was best summed up by Whitianga resident, Cynthia Lingard, who was 21 at the time. She was one of the souvenir hunters who took her life in her hands to go out to the exposed Buffalo wreck. “It was a great adventure,” she said. “We called them tidal waves back then. I don’t even know that we used the word ‘tsunami’ in those days.”

Walter Russell, who has lived in Whitianga from the age of two, said that some people headed for higher ground while others decided to stay put at home and others headed to the beach to have a look at what was happening. It was only after massive tsunamis in places like Japan and Indonesia that New Zealanders really started to take them seriously.

There had been virtually no warning of the tidal wave hitting New Zealand in 1960.

According to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, an alarm was raised of a possible second tsunami following a severe aftershock two days after the first big shake and almost the entire population of Mercury Bay (including Whitianga), Whakatane, Waihi Beach, Ohope, Opotiki and a number other towns along the east coast of New Zealand were moved to higher ground as a result. Curiously, academics say that many people recall the original tsunami and the later evacuation as one single event, when in fact they were a couple of days apart.

Radio broadcasts said that a second wave was roaring across the Pacific at 400mph (640km/h), if that is even possible.

Te Ara said the warning sparked the “largest evacuation in New Zealand’s history”. It added, “The warnings, however, had an unintended side effect - many people went to the coast to watch the tsunami arrive.”

That was something that happened in the Boxing Day earthquake in Indonesia in 2004 where people went to the beach to watch for the tide to come back in and to pick up fish stranded by the tide’s sudden withdrawal. When it did come back in, it did so with a vengeance and many hundreds of people were swept away to their deaths in an instant, unable to outrun the surging wall of water.

However, for New Zealanders the warning of the second 1960 tsunami was a bit of a false alarm as the water was barely any higher than normal, so all the sightseers who turned out along the east coast were able to go home safe, if a little disappointed.

Since 1868, Te Ara said, there have been three tsunamis in New Zealand of 5cm to 10cm in height originating from the west coast of South America.

A 2008 report from Kotuitui: NZ Journal of Social Sciences, said that the lack of a Pacificwide warning system at the time meant that the 1960 tsunami struck New Zealand without an official warning being issued.

Immediately after the event, there was much debate in the media about the need for a warning system, the Kotuitui report writers said, but it was really the Boxing Day 2004 Indian Ocean disaster that killed thousands of people that shocked New Zealand into action. “Over the 40 years from 1960 up to the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, public awareness of New Zealand’s tsunami risk and preparedness had waned,” the report said. “Since 2004, the renewed focus on tsunamis has built on a range of improvements in emergency management policies and practices, and the lessons identified from the event paved the way for a number of new initiatives to get underway to enhance New Zealand’s tsunami warning capacity and capability.”

GNS Science says that New Zealand has a warning system for tsunamis caused by distant earthquakes as well as a warning system for tsunamis caused locally. For distant events, we receive warnings from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, which gives more warning. However, for tsunamis generated by local earthquakes which can arrive much quicker, we have a network of offshore DART (Deep Ocean Assessment Report of Tsunami) buoys which provide data to calculate the risk of a tsunami along the coastline.

In 2020, Thames-Coromandel District Council made the decision to disconnect its non-compliant tsunami warning sirens, as they would have cost ratepayers $5m to $11m to replace, and in any event, according to council, they were the least effective way of alerting people as they reached less than 43 per cent of the population, whereas other methods, such as the Red Cross app, radio and the National Mobile Alert System would reach 80 percent to 90 percent.

The disconnection did not have any impact on Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s alerting systems on the Coromandel.

Pictured is Whitianga resident, Cynthia Lingard, was one of the souvenir hunters who went out to the wreck of HMS Buffalo when the tsunami caused by the massive 1960 Chilean earthquake reached the eastern seaboard of New Zealand.

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