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Answers for Whakatāne can't come soon enough as media floods into seaside town

As you drive into Whakatāne on the road from Tauranga, there's no mistaking what the small seaside holiday spot of 20,000 people is all about.

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The confirmed death toll from the eruption is now six, after a person died in hospital overnight. But eight others are presumed dead on the island. Source: 1 NEWS

"The Gateway to Whakaari," the signs say proudly.

On Monday, everything changed - but in many ways, things couldn't be more the same.

Less than 24 hours after the eruption on White Island that killed multipal people and left dozens in hospitals across the country, locals seem to be quietly trying to get on with life.

A Whakatāne local walks past Te Puia Whakaari - the boat which was carrying tourists to White Island during the eruption. Source: 1 NEWS

At 3pm, the kids of Apanui School cross the road in their red uniforms, with school finishing up like any other weekday.

Locals sit at cafes, enjoying coffee and food, while others enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the waterfront.

Four-wheel drives full of young men mount the curb and drive over the bank of dirt designed to keep vehicles out at the Historic Reserve before making their way to the shade of the flowering pohutakawa trees.

Locals gather at the Historic Reserve on Whakatāne's waterfront after a volcanic eruption on Whakaari / White Island. Source: 1 NEWS

But it's hard to ignore the throngs of domestic and international media which have descended on the town, with many setting up a semi-permanent presence near the fence where flowers and notes of condolence have been left.

The crews make their way from point to point for their live updates in rented SUVs, some reporting to audiences as far away as the USA or UK.

Camera gear set up at a fence adorned with flowers and tributes in Whakatāne. Source: 1 NEWS

It's difficult to walk down the waterfront without a journalist politely asking you if they can ask you a few questions, with a camera operator waiting quietly behind to see whether they need to get into position.

Some of the locals are happy to oblige, telling the world about what they saw on Monday and offering their sorrow to those affected.

Others are less interested, maybe fatigued by yet another person asking them for a "quick chat" as they eat their fish and chips.

A sign at the Whakatāne waterfront advertising tourist adventures to Whakaari / White Island. Source: 1 NEWS

A car carrying two young Māori teens pulls up next to a 1 NEWS crew preparing for a 6pm live-cross.

"Are yous here filming for 1 NEWS?" the driver asks.

"Pretty deadly, aye," he says. "That's what happens when tourists want to come on our lands."

It's a joking comment full of bravado - but with a kernel of truth. The situation arose from the same tourism industry which has been a boon to the town for decades.

White Island Tours' Te Puia Whakaari vessel. Source: 1 NEWS

The wharf, usually busy with tourists setting off for one of the daily trips to the island, is quiet apart from a few contracted security staff and the occasional local walking their dog.

Flowers were left on a tourist vessel covered in ash and docked in Whakatāne. Source: 1 NEWS

Yellow canna lilies have been placed on the bow of White Island Tours' Te Puia Whakaari vessel, while ash and sulphur is still visible on parts of the inflatable landing craft nested on the back.

A rubber mat from one of the ships, left out to dry in the sun, smells like the pools of Rotorua.

Fine particles of ash and volcanic matter coat a rubber mat from a tourist vessel which took tourists to Whakaari / White Island. Source: 1 NEWS

A bronze statue at the waterfront depicts a kiwi, its face downcast with an almost sorrowful expression - a sombre reflection of the mood of the town.

A bronze statue of a kiwi at the Whakatāne waterfront. Source: 1 NEWS

One local, who asked that her name not be used, said she felt "ashamed" that their island had hurt and killed so many people.

A tribute drawn in felt-tip pen at the fence reads: "From the papatūānuku to the tangata whenua - sorry for your loss - and ours. May god save us all. Chin up."

Another puts it succinctly: "May the volcano calm and our people come home".

A tribute left at a fence in Whakatāne after the Whakaari / White Island eruption. Source: 1 NEWS

Many in Whakatāne will have a link to this tragedy, but they are enduring it in a quiet and dignified way, and on their own terms.

When the cameras are gone, and the plume of steam rising from Whakaari returns to its usual wisp, a hole will clearly be left in the hearts of some.

Whakaari / White Island spews steam from its crater on Wednesday, December 11. Source: 1 NEWS

But the past couple of days has been all about waiting - waiting for news of when their people will "come home".

At a media standup inside the Whakatāne District Council buildings, the chief coroner and a police superintendent say they don't yet have all the answers - but they are working as hard as they can to deliver them.

Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall and Police Superintendent Bruce Bird speak to media about the recovery process following the eruption on Whakaari / White Island. Source: 1 NEWS

A reporter asks whether police should be listening to locals - many of whom have said they would be out to the volcano in a moment to retrieve the bodies, if they were allowed to do so.

Domestic and international media at a stand-up at the District Council buildings in Whakatāne. Source: 1 NEWS

Hard questions begin to be asked and the media coordinator ushers the pair out of the room.

There's no doubt officials and rescue teams are eager to recover the bodies, and working intensely to do that, but for Whakatāne - and for the rest of the world - it can't come soon enough.