“If the BBC, which is a reliable news outlet, says there is a tsunami when there was not, says there is a tsunami heading to New Zealand when there was not, says it is aimed at Gisborne when it was not, and says there is police alert when there was not, and if people accept the value of that news report, then the BBC is at fault. The member cannot point the finger at the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management for that.” (Hansard, May 2006.)

— Labour’s Civil Defence minister Rick Barker defending his ministry after it took more than three hours to make any statement about a BBC report suggesting a tsunami could be heading for the East Coast. Now, cut to 2009.

The minister was fuming.
He had woken up to the screeching call of the kea on National Radio and news that an earthquake had triggered tsunami fears in the Pacific. He rang the national director of Civil Defence and after waiting several minutes, heard a voice come on the line.

The director sounded tense. His tone changed when he realised it was the minister. “What’s happening? Is a tsunami coming or not?” barked the minister. The national director shifted uneasily in his chair. He rested his marker pen on the most recent review of the National Civil Defence Management Warning System and gazed out at Wellington Harbour. The Interislander was heading out.

“It’s unclear at this point in time sir,” he replied. “Details are a bit sketchy. We’ve got the seismic boys analysing the data now. The situation is being closely monitored.”

“What does that mean? Can’t someone tell me what’s happening?” snapped the minister.

“We had exactly this scenario with Rick Barker back in 2005 when the bloody BBC seemed to know more about a tsunami threat to New Zealand than we did.”

The national director breathed deeply. “We see no reason for the people of Gisborne to get in their cars and drive to the top of Kaiti Hill like they did last time there was a flap about a tsunami,” he said. “On the other hand, it might pay for them to take basic measures right now, such as parking their cars facing the road so they can get away more quickly in an emergency, filling their pockets with tins of baked beans — simple precautions like that.”

The minister’s voice became menacing. “Listen, I’ll have bloody Sean Plunket interrogating me live on air in a few minutes. What am I supposed to tell him? That his guess is as good as mine? That we’re waiting for a bloody text from a Fiji resort manager to tell us a wall of water is heading our way?”

The national controller watched a plane climb unsteadily into Wellington’s grey skies. Inspiration struck him. “Perhaps we should send up an Air Force Orion so we can get visual confirmation.”

There was a choking sound on the other end of the phone. “Are you mad? It takes 24 hours to pull together something like that and anyway, all the Orions are non-operational. One is in maintenance being fitted with parts stripped from the rest.”

The national controller cleared his throat. “Rest assured minister, you’ll know as soon as we do,” he said, putting the phone down before the minister could answer. He googled “Fijian holiday resorts.”

The bay was calm and blue.
He sat in the firm’s van and stared out to sea. The white cliffs of Kidnappers were clearly etched over to the right. Away to the left, wisps of steam from the Whirinaki pulp mill and the blur of Mahia Peninsula barely visible on the horizon.

But no sign of the tsunami they’d been talking about on the radio. His eyes squinted as he tried to detect a line, a shadow on the shimmering sea. Nothing.

He wished he’d grabbed a coffee at the BP station when he’d bought the steak and cheese pie. It would be too far to go back now, He might miss the wave. The radio had said any tsunami would come on the high tide at about 10.30, which was four minutes ago.

There were already about eight cars scattered along the beach near him. Most were parked facing the bay, a couple were at an angle. It was school holidays and one dad had brought his kids, who stood on the top of the shingle, staring at the sea.

The digital clock on the van’s dash read 10.34 but still no wave.

He got out and walked down on to the stones. He checked his cellphone battery. He didn’t want to miss out on getting a shot if the wave did appear. He’d post it on YouTube. Might be worth good money. Anyway, it had better hurry up. He could only spare another five minutes before the boss would be looking for him.

He tossed the pie bag out the window as two more cars pulled up on the beachfront.

The regional ops room.
The digital clock on the wall of the region’s Civil Defence operations room read 10.00 as the deputy controller scanned his e-mails.

The walls of the ops room were covered in maps and charts. A large whiteboard with six different coloured marker pens stood at one end of the room. The deputy controller had written “quake” in black letters near the top. Then he’d added “mag 7.8” and underlined it with a zig-zag flourish.

He decided the board looked too bare for an ops room so he drew a long sausage, added a few blobs for islands and wrote Indo. A bulging line showed coast of Australia and two cigar shapes represented New Zealand. A large reverse shark fin, depicting the unconfirmed tsunami, was done in thick red lines. As a final touch, he drew three red arrows across the white expanse of the Pacific, their tips pointing at the two sausages. They made him think of barbecues.

There were several of them in the room now, two of them watching the deputy controller checking his e-mails. The controller was at his computer, carefully reading the media releases from head office. He was expecting a call from the mayor wanting to know whether the entire population should be moved to the top of Bluff Hill.

The ops room was under the regional council’s office block. It was the nerve centre in a civil emergency in the district, such as earthquakes or a tsunami. He was slightly uncomfortable about its underground location, in a city once levelled by an earthquake.

On the wall was the ministry’s bright yellow Survival Guide, listing the things to do if there was an official tsunami warning. It recommended going at least a kilometre inland or somewhere 35 metres above sea level.

He tried not to think about the ops room being below sea level, just two tar-sealed blocks from the foreshore.

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