A tsunami alert in New Caledonia: another exercise in efficiency

Photo Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes

Photo Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes

Those of you who are not in New Caledonia may not know that we experienced a tsunami alert this last Wednesday (6 February).  It was my first. And when my friend called at 10 minutes to 2 pm with the news that we were under alert, the conversation went a little like this:

“We’re being kicked out of a restaurant at Baie des Citrons. They said there’s a tsunami alert. It’s due for 2 o’clock.”


“Do you think it’s a joke? I don’t hear sirens.”

“Sirens? Here? This is New Caledonia.”

“I guess I should leave?”

“Yes, you should.”

And with this, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the radio (a reflex from our cyclone days earlier this year).

The next hour was a little touch and go. I spent it calling another friend who lives on the Baie des Citrons and telling her to leave (the Baie des Citrons is one of the most popular bays in Nouméa), listening to the radio (which caused more panic than anything else), watching CNN for the latest, and keeping my other friends up to date. CNN was the most helpful with regular and accurate updates (funny that – local media was not helpful at all). On days like these, speaking English comes in handy.

CNN breaking news 6 FebAt 3 pm, the Pacific Tsunami Watch Center in Hawaii lifted the alert – everyone was safe in the South Pacific region (except for where the earthquake of 8.0 had originally hit – in Santa Cruz Island in the Solomon Islands). I knew this when they broke the news on CNN in real time (see right), and as a good citizen, I texted it and posted it on Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately the New Caledonian press were not informed. The radio station kept taking calls from frightened citizens positioned high on hills (including an 8-year-old) who reported seeing big waves. Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes (the local paper) did not seem to be aware of the lifting of the alert (which I was following on Facebook). The panic went on for approximately an hour and a half later than it needed to. Though the Pacific Tsunami Watch Center had confirmed that we were no longer in danger at 3 pm, the High Commissioner’s Office here decided to keep us under alert until 4:30 pm, just in case.

But let’s back up. Here’s what happened:

12:12 pm (New Caledonian time): An earthquake of 8.0 hits Santa Cruz Island, 1000 miles northeast of New Caledonia.

12:18 pm: The Pacific Tsunami Watch Center in Hawaii issues the tsunami alert.

12:26 pm: The Reference Center transmits the information to the New Caledonian office of the Institute of Research and Development (IRD) and the information is automatically sent to the High Commission.

1:04 pm: The first Orsec activation plan is sent to civil security personnel for implementation at 2 pm. It concerns the western coast of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands.

1:17 pm: A second notice is sent out, this time citing the eastern coast of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands as being concerned.

1:30 pm: A third notice is sent out, extending the Orsec plan to all of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands.

2:00 pm : A few thousand people in Nouméa drive, bike and walk up to the highest points in the city; shops and restaurants close; parents cross the city to pick up and drive their children to safety, grandmothers and infants are moved inland in Lifou.

3:00 pm: The Pacific Tsunami Watch Center in Hawaii lifts the tsunami alert.

4:30 pm: The High Commission lifts the tsunami alert.

Photo Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes

Photo Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes

How about the sirens? Did they go off?  As it is left to the mayors of local communes to service and activate them (though the sirens are installed and financed by the state), there isn’t a national siren plan with regard to alerting the public to tsunamis, fires, cyclones or other disasters. Would you believe that of all the sirens that were set off in Poindimie (9 sirens), Yaté, Canala, Ouvéa and Lifou, none of them functioned? How about Nouméa?  We don’t have any. The mayor of Nouméa has not put them in place for the capital (of 163,723 people in Noumea and its surrounds).

But according to a civil security official,  “the primary resource for the Orsec plan is man, not sirens.” Interesting. I didn’t know we had enough human resources to alert 249,000 people in person, but then I’m happy to learn we’re that well-resourced and organised.

Of the many people I spoke with, including a surgeon at a local Noumean hospital, many were completely unaware that we experienced a tsunami alert on Wednesday afternoon. There is no texto/SMS system, the radio and newspapers are not informed in real time, and as far as I can see, there is no clarity around how to implement the Orsec plan. Firemen reportedly evacuated people that should not have been evacuated in the north, people called the police stations outside Nouméa and the gendarmes there were unable to provide any information. Businesses lost hundreds of thousands of francs as they were shut down in the middle of town and along the bays, areas which according to most statistics would most likely never experience a tsunami (more on this below).

But let’s go back to the chronology. The earthquake struck 1,000 miles away at 12:12. By 12:18, New Caledonia was under a tsunami alert. People acted fast. But according to Pierre Lebellegard, Head of the Seismic Network at the IRD,

“… This earthquake was relatively far away. It would have taken it one and a half hours for the wave to hit New Caledonia.”

Let’s take a step back from that. A quick calculation.

Earthquake hits at 12.12.

It takes an hour and a half for the wave to hit New Caledonia.

1.42 pm the wave hits New Caledonia.

And for those of you who have been following this closely: what time was the Orsec plan to be put in place for?

2 pm.

My guess is that, honestly, we would have been underwater 18 minutes before 2 pm (if we believe the estimates of our IRD professional). Then we’re in survival/emergency mode, not “get everyone out of the water” mode (which is where we were at at 2 pm on Wednesday).

Am I the only person who worries about 18 minutes and split-second calculations? Who sees a grave error here?

Thank goodness nothing happened (well, a wave of 1.2 metres did hit Maré , but there was no damage and no one was hurt). Seriously. Some say that we’ll take this as good practice. Really? From everything I’ve seen here over the last 6 months, my confidence is not rock solid.

Photo Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes

Photo Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes

I did ask myself if New Caledonia had ever had a tsunami (and as someone who lives in and writes about New Caledonia all of the time, I have to admit this is a huge hole in my knowledge). I was surprised to learn that there have been 19 tsunamis here total. Our first in 1875 took 25 lives in Lifou and it was by far the worst we have ever known.

Statistically speaking (according to the IRD), Noumea and the west coast are protected from tsunamis. How is that? A lesson in geography.

For a tsunami to hit Nouméa, a powerful earthquake (of a magnitude over 5.0)  would have to take place west (not east) of New Caledonia. Only three such earthquakes were observed before 1990. Areas north (Solomon Islands) and east (Fiji and Tonga) of New Caledonia pose the greatest threat of tsunamis (as they experience earthquakes). So, according to Pierre Lebellegard once again,

“It’s not strictly impossible [that Nouméa will be hit by a tsunami], but it’s not very likely.”

So why was the entirety of New Caledonia put under a tsunami alert, and in particular, the west coast? Because the earthquake at Santa Cruz Island was of a considerably high magnitude (8.0). If a quake that hard had hit Vanuatu, it would have taken a first wave only 20 minutes to hit the Loyalty Islands (our outlying islands).

So we were lucky this time. I wonder what we’ll be next time.


One thought on “A tsunami alert in New Caledonia: another exercise in efficiency

  1. Pingback: Vanuatu for a week | Yanks in Noumea

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