Hawke's Bay Earthquake

February 3rd, 1931.

The Hawkes Bay earthquake was particularly significant for several reasons. Firstly, it was the first major jolt ever to hit a built-up area of New Zealand. Secondly, it was for 47 years the disaster with the greatest death toll of any the country had ever experienced. To this day it remains one of the country's worst ever disasters. The quake was recorded as far away as the United Kingdom, Cairo, Bombay and Calcutta.

The quake struck in the late morning rocking the entire Hawkes Bay region. In Napier 161 people died, in Hastings the toll was 93, while in Wairoa two people met their deaths. The grand total was 256 whilst the surrounding area looked like it had undergone attack by a military force. In the immediate aftermath residents had to cope with death, serious injury and fire. The only communication available with the outside world was via ship's radio.

On board the merchant ship Taranaki men looked up at the shore as the ship began to tremble, then vibrate violently. As far as the eye could see Napier was smothered in a pall of rising dust. At the same time, in the inner harbour another ship, H.M.S. Veronica, was berthing. At 10.48 a.m. as Captain Morgan walked prepared to go ashore a terrific shock wave hit the ship and she heaved and tossed for 30 seconds. The impact was so powerful that his first thought was her magazine must have exploded. Other crew thought she'd been rammed. Rushing onto deck he was faced with the sight of the wharf twisting and buckling, railway trucks toppling over, roads opening up and buildings crashing to the ground. The wires holding the ship to the wharf snapped and were quickly replaced. The sea rushed out from beneath her briefly leaving the Veronica high and dry.

When the dust finally cleared the extent of the destruction was revealed. Sixteen kilometres away in Hastings the picture had been repeated. Both cities were now devastated and trying to cope with the aftermath of the earthquake.

Captain Morgan went ashore then later contacted Auckland naval base with a report of the situation. He found practically all of the stone and brick buildings in Napier had been destroyed, hundreds of wooden buildings had also been wrecked. Many buildings were blazing furiously, the water supply had failed and the fire department had no means to tackle the fires. Aftershocks were still occurring. The power had also failed leaving the city to cope in the dark that night as the ground continued to shudder with minor quakes.

During the tremor two-storey buildings collapsed like a pack of cards, in one case burying a waiting row of taxis -- their drivers still inside. At the Napier hospital twelve nurses lost their lives when they were crushed after during the collapse of their quarters.

Throughout the city people were crushed in falling buildings. Shop roofs caved in on shoppers, teachers died with their pupils in classrooms, businessmen at their desks, factory workers at their benches. Fourteen elderly men at Parke Island old folks home died, they were helpless to escape. Thousands rushed to the beach thinking it was the safest place to be. Other people lay dead or dying in the streets and some died in their back yards buried under landslides in hilly parts of the city.

Just minutes after the the quake struck fire raged through the business district. At the shattered fire station engines were covered in the rubble of the building, there was no hope of being able to fight the blaze. A strong breeze blew up and the city became an inferno from end to end. With no rescue services available people who were trapped inside buildings burnt to death. Those around them were unable to help. Eventually, the fire burnt itself out.

Carpenters set to work making coffins. Two sides, two ends, a bottom and a lid -- all cut to a standard length. The courthouse became the morgue. Several emergency hospitals were set up, these were hampered by a lack of equipment or drugs and having to work in tents. Some amputations had to be done without the benefit of anaesthetics. At night work continued by the light of acetylene flares and car headlamps.

The day after the quake authorities ordered Napier be evacuated. The sewerage system had broken and fears were held a typhoid outbreak might happen. As thousands of refugees headed out of both Napier and Hastings, many with only the clothes they stood up in, Navy officers stared to blow up buildings which were leaning dangerously and threatening to collapse. Dynamite was also used to dig a mass grave. Into it went fifty-four coffins, this was the first of several burial services at the city cemetery.

The city of Hastings also suffered the same problems. There was fire and people were crushed beneath falling debris. Fire engines were unavailable being themselves trapped beneath fallen buildings. Despite this, things were a little more organised here with the streets patrolled and organised groups rescuing the trapped.

As almost the entire city centre of Napier was rebuilt in the 1930's much of the architecture seen today is in the Art Deco style and this has given the city a special charm, it even contains a McDeco McDonald's! The city still feels a debt towards the crew of the Veronica who did so much to help in the time immediately after the quake. Her bell now stands on Marine Parade and is tolled each year as a reminder of how much they did. Hastings too, has its own unique selection of Spanish Mission and Art Deco buildings. Again, much of the city centre had to be rebuilt after that fateful day.

Marine Parade (Don Hadden hadden@ihug.co.nz Copyright )

Napier is famous for its Marine Parade which was built on land raised during the earthquake of 1931.