New Zealanders have been told to move away from coastal areas of the east of the North Island after three powerful earthquakes at magnitudes of over seven shook the region during the early hours of Friday.
The most powerful, at 8.1 magnitude, struck near the Kermadec Islands, 1,000km north-east of New Zealand.
Many residents described the shaking as “severe”. Aftershocks are still being recorded in the area.
The national emergency agency warned of a tsunami threat with “unpredictable surges” expected along the east coast. It said “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges are expected and the first wave may not be the largest”.
The agency tweeted: “People near the coast in the following areas must move immediately to the nearest high ground, out of all tsunami evacuation zones, or as far inland as possible. Do not stay at home.”
There were reports of chaos in some towns as hundreds of people tried to reach higher ground. The civil defence department has advised people to walk or cycle to avoid getting caught in traffic as they evacuate to higher ground.
Local media reported gridlock as people tried to flee their homes, schools and workplaces. One resident was quoted by the New Zealand Herald as saying the traffic was “bumper to bumper” with “huge queues of people evacuating”.
South Pacific islands have also been warned to prepare themselves for waves as high as 3m.
Reuters reports that tsunami warnings have also been also issued for other Pacific islands including Tonga, American Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Hawaii and others.
Just last week, New Zealand marked the 10th anniversary of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that destroyed parts of Christchurch in the South Island, killing 185 people.