WELLINGTON – One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the South Pacific in modern history triggered tsunami warnings across the ocean and forced thousands of people in New Zealand to evacuate coastal areas Friday. Small tsunami waves were seen, but little damage was apparent hours later.
The magnitude 8.1 quake in the Kermadec Islands region about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from New Zealand's two main islands was the largest in a series of temblors over several hours, including two earlier quakes that registered magnitude 7.4 and magnitude 7.3.
The tsunami threat caused traffic jams and some chaos in New Zealand as people scrambled to get to higher ground.
Residents recorded videos of small wave surges in some places, including at Tokomaru Bay near Gisborne. In the afternoon, the National Emergency Management Agency said the threat had passed and people could return to their homes, although they should continue avoiding beaches.
One of the earlier quakes hit much closer to New Zealand and awoke many people as they felt a long, rumbling shaking. “Hope everyone is ok out there,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wrote on Facebook during the night.
After the largest quake, civil defense authorities in New Zealand told people in some coastal areas to immediately get to higher ground. They said a damaging tsunami was possible, and waves could reach up to 3 meters (10 feet).
Emergency Management Minister Kiri Allan told reporters that people had followed the advisory.
“They felt the long or strong earthquakes and they knew to grab their bag and head into the highlands,” she said. “I can only thank and acknowledge the tireless efforts of the men and women from up and down the coast who knew how to act, when to act, and what to do.”