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Tsunami sirens scrapped

Bay of Plenty Times
by John Cousins - with Jamie Morton

1 February 2011

Tsunami warning sirens have been abandoned in favour of a system that includes remote-controlled household alarms for residents along Tauranga's vulnerable coastline.

A new-look civil defence warning and response system was unveiled last week to Tauranga City Council.

There was strong support for the package, which taps into technologies that were likely to be unrolled across the rest of the Bay.

The plug-in alarm is triggered by a remote-controlled ripple signal system, the same system as power companies use to control hot water cylinders.

Driving the decision was the publication of maps last year showing the potential devastation from "worst case" and "extreme" tsunami.

A worst case "orange zone" 4m tsunami would inundate the lower-lying areas closest to the dunes or harbour margins, while an extreme 6.75m surge would inundate the entire coastal strip and the rest of the lower-lying harbour margins - hitting 19,000 homes and forcing 35,000 people to flee for their lives.

The decision means the council has abandoned the idea of trying to use sirens to alert residents.

There was widespread confusion by Papamoa residents around the use of loudspeaker-type sirens in successive tsunami alerts.

The council agreed to spend $114,000 over the next two years on the home alarms, with Bay of Plenty Regional Council chipping in the same amount.

This will buy a total of 1900 plug-in alarms for residents living in the orange zone.

The Bay's Emergency Management Group co-ordinator Greg Wilson said the plan was for the alarms to go into public institutions, rest homes, the homes of neighbourhood support co-ordinators plus up to five others in the neighbourhood network.

He said it would be prohibitively expensive to put the alarms into every home in the orange zone.

However, there was nothing to stop anyone from paying $120 for their own alarm - it only needed to be plugged in to work once the system was up and running. Mr Wilson said the alarms were part of a suite of measures which included Readynet - a system which alerts specific areas and groups of people by email and text messages.

"Readynet provides a quick and easy mechanism to confirm or kill rumours."

Pivotal to the effectiveness of the new system was public education, with $150,000 budgeted to be spent in Tauranga over the next two years. Tauranga's portion of the package for this year totals $130,000 and includes $78,000 for the alarms.

Papamoa Progressive Association chairman Neville Dixon and vice-chairman Steve Morris said they often heard residents' worries about their community's preparedness for a disaster.

Mr Morris said while coastal residents were "more likely to be hit by a Bay Hopper bus" than have their homes devastated by a tsunami, the need for the council to invest in an adequate warning system was vital.

"It's one of those things where the cost of not doing it would be astronomical.

"And this isn't also just for Mount Maunganui and Papamoa.

"Tauranga people shop here, they go to the beach here ... this is a city-wide system."

Mr Morris believed the best set-up was a large system with loud, distinguishable sirens, backed up with a suite of other preparations including text and email trees, and ongoing public education. He was against the idea of proposed portable plug-in alarms, which he believed could easily be removed and forgotten about by residents over time.

Mr Dixon said the last tsunami scare had not only proved Papamoa needed a better siren system, but that better access routes were needed for residents scrambling for higher ground.

"Generally, people feel there hasn't been enough put in place to constitute an adequate warning system."

Yesterday's decision was complicated by the council deciding that the alarms would not be funded from general rates across the whole city.

If another funding solution could not be found, then costs will lie with coastal residents on a user-pays basis.

A mobile public address loud speaker will be purchased next year. Cr Bill Grainger was the only councillor to support sirens.


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