The tsunami siren project is gone high and dry


The ongoing fight for tsunami sirens in Mount Maunganui and Pāpāmoa was lost with the withdrawal of funding.

Tauranga City Council commissioners voted to refuse to fund the sirens at a council meeting on Tuesday. Instead, it will continue to invest in tsunami preparedness education and awareness.

There has been talk of sirens for the coastal suburbs since 2005 and despite a test in 2006 nothing concrete has taken place.

Council approved a budget for the mermaids in 2019 and completed public engagement on them in April, as part of the annual plan and consultation on the long-range plan.

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People were asked whether the council should continue to invest in education, awareness and support for the most isolated or vulnerable members of the community, option one. Or option two was to implement a $3.9 million tsunami siren project with ongoing costs of $209,000 per year.

The Council received 626 submissions, of which 493 were in favor of continued investment and 133 were in favor of installing sirens. An additional 554 submissions were received that did not answer the tsunami preparedness question.

Comments from those who supported the first option said that sirens were ineffective and unreliable in real disasters, that education was key to survival, and that phones and social media provided sufficient means to push through the message.

Proponents of the sirens said the investment in education had not seemed to be effective so far, that the sirens would reach everyone and that part of the community did not have phones capable of receiving mobile emergency alert.

One of the reasons council staff recommended against funding sirens was that international evidence has shown that the risks associated with the community relying on a siren to tell when to evacuate may be more dangerous than the absence of a siren.

Bay of Plenty Emergency Management supports this information.

Commission chair Anne Tolley.

John Borren/Sun Media

Commission chair Anne Tolley.

Its manager Clinton Naude previously told Local Democracy Reporting that the sirens were known to cause complacency that undermined other warnings.

Sirens could also be damaged by an earthquake and not be activated in time for a tsunami, Naude said.

At the meeting, chief regulatory and compliance officer Barbara Dempsey said sirens were “scientifically not the best option”.

“We have a lot of examples overseas, where they’ve let people down and we wouldn’t like to think people are relying on sirens to evacuate,” she said.

Dempsey said there are “really good” national warning systems, but the best warning is the natural warning system. In other words, if people feel a long or strong earthquake, they should evacuate.

Current warning systems include Emergency Mobile Alert (EMA), Red Cross Hazards app, radio and TV, social media and word of mouth.

The Pāpāmoa Residents and Taxpayers Association has long advocated for mermaids and held its own tests in 2012 with temporary mermaids.

PÄ pÄ moa Residents and Ratepayers Association president Philip Brown.

John Borren/Sun Media

PÄ pÄ moa Residents and Ratepayers Association president Philip Brown.

After the meeting, association president Philip Brown said Local Democracy Reporting’s sirens were an effective secondary warning tool, but there were “no easy escape routes to the heights of Pāpāmoa”.

“All roads run parallel to the coast and do not go inland to higher ground,” he said.

“We can feel the quake, and we know the wave can come, but there are no easy escape routes to the heights of Pāpāmoa.”

Brown asserted: “Council staff with a premeditated outcome dismissed the tsunami sirens citing negative experiences overseas.

“Let’s listen to this, saying it is not enough. Likewise, there will have been many positive experiences, let’s listen to them as well.

“The sirens will always work in conjunction with the national tsunami warning system,” he said.

“Local tsunami sirens and sufficient escape routes are the local solution.”

During the meeting, commission chairwoman Anne Tolley said she would like to see “check your neighbour” added to the council’s messages about the tsunami.

“There will be people who don’t have a phone, who don’t hear it [the EMA] for one reason or another,” she said.

Commissioner Shadrach Rolleston.

John Borren/Sun Media

Commissioner Shadrach Rolleston.

“It just goes to show that if you’re relying on being told to leave, it might be too late, especially if you’re in a low zone.”

Dempsey said verbal conversations with the community, especially the older community, focus on checking on your neighbor, but they would formalize that message on the website and in written materials.

Commissioner Shadrach Rolleston was in favor of continuing education and agreed with Tolley.

“We need this ongoing campaign to make sure our community is well aware of how to react and how to react when situations like this occur,” he said.

“Think of those around you, whether you are at work, home or on the go, to consider and think of others and how we respond to ensure we are safe, but also the people around us .”

The council launched a Tsunami Awareness Project in 2021 which educated the community about their own role in preparing for, responding to and surviving a tsunami.

The objective of the project was to work with the community to minimize the fatal risks associated with the tsunami through education, planning and a high level of awareness. It reached 548,523 people, according to a staff report to the council.

Council staff will report back to commissioners on the continuing education program plan within the next two months. Public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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