Start of the salvage operation at the Tūtūkākā Marina after the tsunami surge. Photo / Michael Cunningham
A year has passed since an eruption in Tonga drove a devastating tsunami surge through Tūtūkākā Marina and caused nearly $6 million worth of damage.
However, next month marks the start of the marina’s rebuild
that will make it able to withstand an even greater tsunami than the surges experienced on the evening of January 15 last year.
Talking about that night still remains difficult for one Ngunguru couple whose beloved boat, Amphitreete, was wrecked beyond repair.
Neville Hawker, a Coastguard Tūtūkākā volunteer, said he and his wife Sheryl had been affected by that evening more than they expected.
“You think, oh, it’s just a boat, and that’s sort of what we thought, but it really affected us a lot deeper than that. It was really like losing a member of your family.”
On January 15, the couple had been invited to a party at their next-door neighbour’s house.
“We saw the news at 6 o’clock just before we left, and it said about the eruption in Tonga,” Neville said.
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano had exploded underwater, discharging shockwaves and an audible booming that could be heard from New Zealand to Alaska.
Scientists labelled the eruption rare, as it caused tsunami waves large enough to deal a blow to coastlines thousands of kilometres away from the volcano.
But the news had said there was no threat to New Zealand, Neville recalled. So, they left for the party.
Once there, they learned someone’s son had been evacuated from Schnappa Rock Restaurant based within the marina.
The news prompted Neville to check his phone, and at 9.15pm, he saw missed calls from a boatie berthed on the same pier as Amphitreete.
When he phoned her back, she told him the place was “just chaos”.
“She said there was water everywhere, and our boat was getting beaten up, and I’m out of here.”
For the most part, the tsunami surges had been at a level similar to others experienced at the marina. However, at 9.34pm, they had escalated.
And according to a Northland Regional Council report, the surges continued at “damaging levels” until around 11pm.
The marina manager had estimated 4m swells at the entrance to Tūtūkākā Harbour.
Tsunami scientist Jose Borrero said the wave heights on January 15 were no higher than on March 5, 2021, when a tsunami threat sparked a large-scale evacuation in Northland, but the currents had been much stronger.
Neville and Sheryl had rushed to the marina and raced down to the end of the pier, but their boat was gone.
“That was a bit of a sinking feeling in your stomach sort of moment,” Neville said.
Instead of looking for Amphitreete, Neville swung into action alongside fellow Coastguard volunteers and began to tie loose boats back up.
“Then we found our boat down the bottom,” he said. “It didn’t seem real at the time.”
Amphitreete had been in the family for six years. Their daughter, Gracie, had even learned to swim off the boat.
A fate made even more painful as the couple had slogged away tirelessly between 2017 and 2018 to get her ready to go offshore the following year.
“We did the Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia circuit with Island Cruising New Zealand, and that was definitely an amazing trip,” Neville said.
But it would be her last.
After the surge, Amphitreete was refloated, and her damage assessed.
“Basically, she was written off,” Neville said.
“There was so much damage in every direction of the thing. As well as all the water and mud inside, all the electronics were fried.”
The couple, unable to afford another multi-hull vessel, has since purchased an older mono-hull which is undergoing a refit.
On Sunday, Neville and Sheryl will mark the anniversary of the tsunami surges by sharing a drink with one of the four other boat owners whose vessels were destroyed.
While no one was injured amid the chaos, a woman did have to be pulled from the water by the marina manager. She had been shaken but unharmed.
Miraculously, only three deaths were recorded in Tonga due to the eruption. But entire communities were blanketed in volcanic ash and mud. The island of Mango had all of its homes decimated.
Back in Northland, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and Northland Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) were criticised for not warning about the tsunami following the ordeal.
NEMA had issued an advisory at 8.15pm on Saturday, which warned of strong and unusual currents on the north and east coast of the North Island and Chatham Islands.
This was shared by Northland CDEM on its Facebook page and forwarded to emergency services, councils, port and marina facilities, lifelines utilities, the Welfare Coordination Group, and Community Response Group co-ordinators around the region.
No siren or phone notification – usually used for tsunami warnings in Northland – was utilised.
The NRC report stated that comments from the public saying they would prefer to receive EMAs and be evacuated on a precautionary basis were at odds with feedback from the 2021 tsunami evacuation.
It outlined plans by Northland CDEM to pursue the possibility of a new advisory for strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges with additional risks through the national Tsunami Working Group, as well as exploring potential localised responses with the Tūtūkākā Marina.
In the meantime, rebuilding the beat-up marina will begin in the middle of next month.
Insurance Council of New Zealand (ICNZ) data showed insurance claims linked to the surges at the marina totalled $5,935,229.
Wood and polystyrene/concrete parts of floating marina fingers and piles into the seabed had given way under the surges.
Tūtūkākā Marina Management Trust chair John Healy said a lot of time and money had been spent engineering and rearranging damaged parts of the marina, which included 54 berths.
“The long and the short of it is we’ve bought it up to a standard where it can put up with a tsunami bigger than anything we’ve seen before.”
Healy said that Tsunami scientist Borrero had provided input into the rebuild, which is expected to take six weeks.
He commended the trust’s work, compromised of volunteers who have worked tirelessly to get to this stage.
In the days and weeks after the tsunami, Healy recalled the piles were “getting pulled out like rotten teeth,” and smashed pontoons that were cast adrift had to be removed using a barge crane.
Healy, among trustees Ron Lansdowne, Mike Hodson and Terry Harris, are relieved to see the work to restore the marina finally underway.
“There’s a lot of engineering that’s gone into it, and it’s been bought up to a more modern spec,” said Healy.
Approximately 90 steel piles are to be placed at the Marina as part of the rebuild and replacements of some of the piers, with the ends of some entirely missing.
Terry Harris explained the steel poles are “bigger, stronger, longer, and they will go further into the seabed. The engineers have calculated that they will withstand another tsunami of that magnitude.”
It’s miraculous that work will be underway so soon, after only a year, to ship the piles from China and organise a complete rebuild, all during subsequent lockdowns.
In the wake of the tsunami, long-term renters had to find somewhere else to moor their boats, as owners of berths took priority.
While they had to uplift their lives, the rebuild will make way for a new and better space for all to use.
Healy said there would be “some disruption” to the marina as work gets underway, but users are understanding.