Hawke’s Bay earthquake

On 3 February 1931, New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake devastated the cities of Napier and Hastings, Hawke’s Bay. At least 256 people died in the magnitude 7.8 earthquake: 161 in Napier, 93 in Hastings, and two in Wairoa. Many thousands more required medical treatment.

What happened?

At 10.47am on 3 February 1931, a violent shock, followed closely by a second, rocked Hawke’s Bay for almost three minutes. A tanker at sea felt a violent vibration, and the seamen on board looked to the shore to see Napier covered by a cloud of rising dust.

Hastings Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931], CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0039
Hastings Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931], CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0039

The HMS Veronica had just tied up in Napier’s inner harbour when the earthquake hit. Captain Morgan at first thought there had been an explosion on board, but then saw the wharf twisting, and beyond it houses and other buildings crumpling to the ground. Dust rose in clouds from the shattered buildings, making it difficult for people to breathe, and huge splits in the roads appeared.

Panic-stricken, people ran down to the beaches where they hoped to be safe. As the water in the bay receded with the rising of the land, many thought that a tsunami was on the way, but this was not the case.

Injuries and fatalities

The first victims of the earthquake were people who ran out to the street and were struck by falling masonry, as the stone decorations on many of the buildings crashed to the ground. Many were killed instantly when buildings collapsed on them, but others were buried in the rubble. Most of the deaths were in the city centres.

Attempts to rescue the trapped and injured began almost at once. The local people were helped by sailors from the HMS Veronica. Some would-be rescuers were killed when buildings collapsed further, or more earthquake tremors struck.

Fire and rescue

Hastings Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931] CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0040
Hastings Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931] CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0040

At the central fire station in Napier the engines were covered in debris from the destroyed brigade building, and were unable to be used when fires broke out in the city centre soon after the earthquake. In Napier the gas supply had been shut off three minutes after the first tremor, and the risk of fire from electrical faults was avoided by fuses on the street power poles which blew out. Fires were started in three chemist shops where a gas jet was kept burning to melt the wax used to seal prescriptions. The shops also had a lot of flammable materials, such as different types of oil.

Water for fighting fires ran out as pipes cracked and broke underground, and fighting the fires became impossible. Rescuers fought to bring out the trapped and injured victims from the rubble before the fires reached them, but many people died in the fires. Because human lives were the first priority, many valuable records and goods were lost in the blaze. The weather had been fine, after many hot dry days. A wind blew up not long after the earthquake, and spread the fires further. The fires burned in Napier for 36 hours before finally dying out.

Lives lost and buildings destroyed

The nurses’ home in Napier, built only a year before, collapsed, killing twelve of the nurses. A rest home was destroyed and 14 elderly men who lived there were killed. The Napier Boy’s High School assembly hall was severely damaged, but fortunately all of the boys had left the building. However, at Napier Technical College ten boys and two teachers died when a room collapsed on them.

Hastings Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931] CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0041
Emerson Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931], CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0041

The courtroom became the morgue where bodies were laid out to be identified by relatives. Emergency hospitals were set up, but the doctors and nurses were limited in what they could do to help the injured because of a lack of medical supplies.

Back-up medical teams were sent from Auckland on board Navy ships, and from Wellington by train. The main roads in both Napier and Hastings were blocked by mountains of rubble, while landslides caused more damage in the hilly parts of both areas. In Napier, houses built on the hill-side suffered a lot of damage, especially those that had two storeys. Most of the brick and stone buildings of Napier were destroyed and many wooden buildings wrecked.

Hastings Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931] CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0038
Hastings Street after the Napier earthquake [Feb. 1931] CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0038

In Hastings, 20 kilometres away, brick buildings and chimneys also collapsed. The water supplies in both cities were no longer working. The tram tracks in Napier were twisted out of place. As power was lost, trams came to a halt all over Napier. When the city was rebuilt, the tram lines were not restored.

One 90-year-old man was buried in the earthquake rubble, but was finally dug out alive, three days later. In Hastings almost 200 buildings were destroyed. The most deaths were in a department store, but there were also many who died in the public library. Hastings also suffered from fires and the firefighters had problems with their water supply, but the spread of the fire was not as great as in Napier.

How many died?

256 people died (161 in Napier, 93 in Hastings, two in Wairoa).

Other events and outcomes

Cover of Quake: Hawke's Bay 1931The earthquake was felt in most of New Zealand, apart from the Auckland peninsula and Otago. The hands of the clock on the band rotunda in Napier stopped at the time the earthquake struck, 10:47 am.

Telephone and telegraph lines were down in Hawke’s Bay, so information about the earthquake and requests for help had to be sent by wireless operators on the HMS Veronica and other ships. The sailors from the HMS Veronica and other ships in the area collected supplies of food and other goods from the evacuated buildings in Napier and took them to the emergency camp and hospital set up at Greenmeadows. This camp stayed in operation for six weeks after the earthquake.

The day after the earthquake, Napier was officially evacuated. With water and sewage pipes out of action, the risk of disease was high. Over 5000 people left the city, including many of the injured that could be moved. Half-destroyed buildings were completely demolished in the interests of safety. Explosives were used to make a hole in the cemetery big enough for 54 coffins in the first burial service.

About the the earthquake

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale. There was no seismograph in Hawke’s Bay, but the waves of the earthquake were measured at Wellington and other places around New Zealand. The main fault was buried under the earth’s surface, and did not break it. Instead it heaved up the land and set off two smaller faults which broke on the surface.

The sea floor just off Hawke’s Bay was lifted more than 2.7 metres, and the Ahuriri Lagoon and tidal flats were drained. The present Napier airport stands on land which was once part of the lagoon.

The impact of the earthquake was greater than the Murchison earthquake a year earlier, because it struck in an area where there was a higher population. The structures in the area were not earthquake-resistant, which meant that the high number of deaths was the result of collapsing buildings and falling debris. The Hawke’s Bay earthquake was the worst natural disaster recorded in New Zealand.

Rebuilding after the quake

When Napier was rebuilt, the streets were widened and the services improved, including the installation of New Zealand’s first underground power system. The architectural fashion of the time was known as Art Deco, and central Napier is almost entirely built in this style.

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