Debate over Tauranga’s 20-year tsunami sirens continues

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The community’s 20-year struggle over tsunami sirens has hit another roadblock. Photo / Georges Novak

The tsunami sirens for Mount Maunganui and Pāpāmoa have been the talk of the town for almost 20 years but, despite the funding, the council wants to remove them from its work programme.

In 2019, Tauranga City Council approved a budget for mermaids, which then Councilor Steve Morris was “really delighted with”.

Morris has been advocating for sirens for at least 12 years and believes they should be a priority as a secondary warning system.

The Council has just completed consultation on the use of tsunami sirens under the 2021-31 long-range plan.

The cost of the mermaids is $3.9 million with an ongoing cost of $209,000 per year, according to the council.

Morris said it was a small prize for “critical, potentially life-saving infrastructure”.

“I think it’s a matter of priorities.

“The first thing is to really understand what a siren is for and it’s like a backup of the main mechanism, which is the natural warning signs, and not get bogged down in bureaucratic arguments about it.”

Steve Morris, former Tauranga Councillor.  Photo / Georges Novak
Steve Morris, former Tauranga Councillor. Photo / Georges Novak

Council emergency management officer Paula Naude said there were pros and cons to tsunami sirens.

“International evidence shows us that the risks associated with the community relying on a siren to know when to evacuate may be more dangerous than no siren,” she said.

“The best and most reliable warning system for local-source tsunamis in New Zealand is natural warning.”

The natural warning is that if an earthquake is long or strong, people should evacuate and not wait for an alert.

“There have been advances in knowledge, data and technology since sirens were first discussed for Tauranga,” Naude said.

“Based on the best information available, sirens are no longer considered the safest option for our community.”

Bay of Plenty Director of Emergency Management Clinton Naude said the BOP’s Civil Defense Emergency Management Group does not consider sirens to be an effective or reliable warning mechanism in the event of a tsunami from local source and that there are currently no sirens in the area.

The Bay of Plenty CDEM group comprises seven councils: Bay of Plenty Regional, Tauranga City, Western Bay of Plenty, Whakatāne, Kawerau, Ōpōtiki and Rotorua Lakes.

Clinton Naude said some disadvantages of tsunami sirens were that locally sourced tsunamis could arrive within minutes, so there might not be time for an official warning.

“The sirens can also be damaged by the earthquake itself and therefore cannot be activated,” he said.

“Sirens are notorious for causing complacency, which undermines the most reliable warning system for locally sourced tsunamis – natural warning itself.”

He said if an evacuation was necessary, warning systems included emergency mobile alert, radio, television, social media and megaphones.

Despite the other systems available, Morris said there was still community support for the sirens.

“What we found with the residents of Mount and Pāpāmoa in particular was that they wanted, an addition to the text messaging system and to know the warning signs,” he said.

“They also wanted to be alerted via a public siren system.”

In 2012, the Pāpāmoa Residents and Taxpayers Association set up temporary air raid sirens and conducted their own tests.

Morris was president at the time. He said sirens were widely heard in Mount Maunganui and Pāpāmoa.

He said it “really annoyed” the tip of the day, but showed the sirens could be heard widely.

The association’s current president, Philip Brown, said the association believes the sirens are essential.

Philip Brown, president of the Papamoa Residents and Ratepayers Association.  Photo / Talia Parker
Philip Brown, president of the Papamoa Residents and Ratepayers Association. Photo / Talia Parker

“We always asked for them,” he said.

“We always thought they were part of the mix of getting the warnings and the evacuation message out, we never wavered on that.

“The fact that there are other high-tech solutions, we think sirens are a great complement.”

When asked what he thought about removing sirens from the council’s work program, Brown replied, “Do they want to kill people?”

He said there were limits to the mobile emergency alert.

“Not everyone has a cell phone, not everyone can hear their cell phone.

“Not everyone wakes up to their cell phone, but with a continuous sounding tsunami siren, they will wake up.”

He said there was no quick escape route inland for the residents of Mount Maunganui and Pāpāmoa, so people needed as much warning as possible.

Projects to install sirens along the western coast of the Bay of Plenty were initiated in 2005 after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia.

In 2006, 10 sirens were tested between Waihi Beach and Pukehina, however, “black spots” were discovered where the sirens could not be heard.

Tauranga City Council and Bay of Plenty Civil Defense Emergency Management were unable to say whether this resulted in sirens being installed due to a lack of “sufficient information”.

Morris wants to see action on the siren installation rather than more consultation.

“The dithering and dragging went on too long in my opinion.”

Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air


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