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Polynesia earthquake and tsunami alert sends New Caledonia residents scrambling to higher ground

People look out toward the seafront from the Vierge du Pacifique in Noumea on May 19, 2023, after an earthquake hit the island.
People look out toward the seafront from the Vierge du Pacifique in Noumea on May 19, 2023, after an earthquake hit the island. Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Euronews with AFP
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A 7.7 magnitude earthquake some 300km off the coast of New Caledonia triggered a tsunami warning as local residents ran for safety.

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A powerful 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck the Pacific Ocean some 300km southeast of New Caledonia on Friday, where coastal communities have been temporarily evacuated due to the risk of a tsunami, according to civil security.

The earthquake was detected at around 2pm local time (0300 GMT) at a depth of 37km off the coast of New Caledonia, according to the US Geophysical Institute (USGS).

The tremor was so powerful that it immediately raised fears of a tidal wave on the coast of New Caledonia, but also in some coastal areas of Vanuatu.

"The first waves arrived in Maré and the Isle of Pines but they did not exceed 50 centimetres. There is reason to believe that it will not go beyond that," said Colonel Frédéric Marchi-Leccia, New Caledonia's director of civil security.

Warning sirens sounded throughout the territory while the police and fire brigade called for an evacuation of the coast and beaches in the early afternoon.

The Honolulu-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) had initially estimated that a tidal wave was "possible" within a 1,000km radius of the epicentre, before raising the alert an hour later in New Caledonia and then in the whole Pacific.

"On the basis of all available data, the threat of a tsunami linked to this earthquake has now been ruled out," said a PTWC statement.

Waves of one metre above tidal level were observed in Lenakel, Vanuatu, according to the same source.

Vanuatu authorities had also called on residents to evacuate coastal areas less than 12 metres above sea level and within 300 metres of the shoreline.

Euronews Graphistes
Map showing New Caledonia and approximate location of earthquakeEuronews Graphistes

Knee-high waves

Anna Erick, who runs a beachfront hotel on Vanuatu's Tanna island, told French news agency AFP that she and her children decided to move to higher ground after seeing unusually large waves crashing on a nearby beach.

She said the waves were knee-high.

Benie Simo, a tour operator on Vanuatu's Mystery Island, reported receiving a text message from the government telling him to evacuate and move to higher ground.

He said the waves were rising "very high, but it's not a big deal", referring to a height of one to two metres.

"People are doing exactly what they are told to do... They go up to the top until they are told it is safe to come down," he said.

Wave warnings for other Pacific countries

The PTWC had also warned of the possibility of smaller waves, from 30 centimetres to one metre in New Caledonia, Fiji, Kiribati and New Zealand.

Before the warning was lifted, Colonel Frédéric Marchi-Leccia had urged people to "stay away from the sea and get to a high point", and then welcomed the fact that the population had respected the instructions.

In Noumea, some residents felt the tremor strongly.

"We were on the 14th floor. We were on the sofa watching TV, finishing our lunch and then it shook for a few seconds. It was really impressive. We went down, everyone went down," an unnamed resident of Noumea told radio station Nouvelle Calédonie Première.

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"We didn't think about it, we called those who were in the house, we went to get my sister-in-law and immediately we came to the heights," said Anne-Laure, a resident of the Magenta district in Noumea.

Barbara, another resident of Noumea, said she "didn't feel any particular concern" even though she would avoid going "near the beaches". "We were all marked by the 2004 tsunami, so we shouldn't take things lightly," she added.

A journalist in New Caledonia said he "felt a strong tremor for at least 15 to 20 seconds".

The tremor was also felt in Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, a province of New Caledonia which is home to around 20,000 people.

Seismic activity is common in the Pacific "Ring of Fire" where tectonic plates collide.

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