OK…so what tsunami was that, then?
NEW Zealanders awoke to something different on Radio NZ this morning – the urgent tones of Sean Plunket, rather than the golden tonsils of usual Sunday morning voices, Chris Laidlaw and Stuart Keith.
Plunket – one half of the presenting team for weekday news programme Morning Report, and rarely heard at weekends – was frontman for RNZ’s tsunami coverage early today.
He spoke to RNZ reporters throughout the country as word of a coming tsunami – produced by a big earthquake in Chile last night – filtered out from the Civil Defence authorities, and Kiwis hurried down to the coast to see.
TVNZ and TV3 got in on the big news act, as well, running major coverage bulletins at midday and hourly updates.
The Sunday Star-Times also got a few paragraphs about possible danger onto its front page, but downplayed it. Their small story said the first surge could hit Wellington around 8.25am.
By 8.15, RadioNZ had updated this to 8.55am.
When that “deadline” rolled round, crowds along the hill streets overlooking Lyall Bay and other sea frontages saw no evidence from the sea.
People swam and walked their dogs at Lyall Bay throughout the morning.
At 9.20, people sitting in their cars monitoring the unfolding mini-drama heard that a 20cm wave had been recorded in the Chatham Islands.
Plunket told his audience the tsunami were spreading across the Pacific at the speed of a jetliner (about 600kph), so onlookers began calculating when they might see something in Wellington.
Then news that a metre-high wave had hit the Chathams.
At 9.30, Lyall Bay watchers were sure they saw the sea level dropping, followed by a slight surge. Plunket mentioned it, too.
Bathers and dog walkers were either undeterred or didn’t know. By now surf club members were running down the beach to tell people to get out.
Another recede and surge came half an hour later, but it was so slight as to be arguable.
Aircraft came and went from Wellington Airport, prompting one onlooker to say the emergency can’t be too serious or they’d all fly away.
Where to? Taupo?
Then, news a two-metre surge had been recorded in the Chathams, followed a while later by similar news from the northland coast, at Tutukaka: “That’ll have stuffed the marina there,” said someone.
By 10.30, cars were dawdling along Lyall Bay’s sea frontage, and the hot-dog caravan near the airport was gearing up for business.
One of the men behind the counter laughed when asked if he was worried about the tsunami: “Yeah, I’m terrified.”
A man perched on the seawall at Lyall Bay listening to his radio said he lived a couple of doors back from the beach, so there was no point running.
“If it comes, we’ll all go. I did warn the girls next door, though – they were still partying hard.”
Police cars cruised the South Coast, watching for something to happen and people to warn.
At 11am, two men (one from Civil Defence) stood at the strangely empty boat ramp carpark near Breaker Bay, ready to turn would-be boaties away.
Their children played in the rock pools. One of the men took offence at the suggestion this might be foolhardy: “It’s one way they’ll learn,” he growled.
At 11.30am, the seaside cafe at Scorching Bay past Seatoun was starting to get busy. At footpath tables three metres above the beach, brunch-munchers laughed off a threat of drowning: “Where’s the nearest escape route?”
There was no sign of the nude photo shoot nearby. (It was cancelled. Being already disrobed was obviously not seen as an advantage in the event of a surging sea).
At midday, people were walking their toddlers along the water’s edge, watching the occasional swimmer. Cook Strait ferries drifted past on their way up to Wellington’s waterside.
It was the tsunami that wasn’t.