Hawke's Bay's big shake - roadside stories

New Zealand's most devastating earthquake killed more than 250 and destroyed Napier and Hastings in February 1931. The 7.8-magnitude quake was followed by fires which gutted central Napier. The city was rebuilt in art deco style – now a major tourist drawcard.


Archival audio: Gordon Amner recalls the 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake.

Narrator: New Zealand sits on the edge of two giant tectonic plates, which means we have many earthquakes. The country’s most devastating earthquake occurred in the Hawke’s Bay in February 1931. A quake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale destroyed the cities of Napier and Hastings, and killed over 250 people.

As buildings began to disintegrate, many people fled outdoors as chunks from ornate facades and parapets rained down upon them. Roofs caved in on buildings that had large open internal areas, such as churches, libraries and theatres. Most deaths occurred when brick and stone buildings simply caved in.

Lauris Edmond (actor’s voice): On the day of the earthquake Dad was up a ladder, painting tanks for a farmer on the hills towards Puketitiri. As he held up his brush to dip it in the paint pot that hung on his ladder, the tank leaped off its stand into the air and rolled down the hill. He was a phlegmatic man my father, his main thought was that if he’d been in front instead of at the side it would have taken him too.

Narrator: In Napier, the recently built Nurses’ Home collapsed, killing clerical staff and off-duty nurses who were sleeping. In nearby Hastings, 17 people died when Roach’s department store collapsed. Fifteen people died at the Park Island Old Men’s Home near Taradale, though a 91-year-old man was pulled alive from the rubble three days later.

The earthquake struck on the first day back at school after the summer holidays. Most pupils managed to escape to the outdoors in time, but nine students died in the wreckage of the brick Napier Technical College.

Jock Stevens was at Napier Boys' High School when the earthquake struck:

Jock Stevens (actor’s voice): The shakes sent me flying onto the floor of the doorway and I can still feel the feet of the class trampling over me. I got to my feet and from there I saw the Assembly Hall collapse like a pack of cards – each wall fell in then the tiled roof came down. Then dust clouds blotted it out.

Narrator: Within minutes of the earthquake, fire began in central Napier. Firefighters were helpless as water pressure faded to a trickle. By mid-afternoon the entire business district was ablaze. The fire was finally extinguished 36 hours later. Almost 11 blocks of the central city were gutted.

The navy sloop HMS Veronica had berthed in Napier’s harbour on the morning of the earthquake. When the earthquake struck the bottom of the harbour rose, leaving the ship aground. The Veronica radioed Auckland, and within hours, two cruisers were on their way. Each carried 450 men, as well as doctors, nurses, and medical equipment.

Napier’s hospitals were badly damaged, so patients were moved to the lawns of the Botanical Gardens, where a surgical station was set up. Emergency hospitals were set up at the local racecourses, where doctors operated beneath the grandstand.

Though the earthquake was a terrible tragedy, it did give a unique opportunity to almost completely replace a town centre using the most modern styles available. The distinctive character of Napier which resulted from the use of styles such as Art Deco now makes the city’s architecture a major tourist attraction.

The massive upheaval of the land caused by the earthquake dramatically changed Napier’s landscape. In some places the land was lifted nearly three metres. Before the quake, Napier had extensive wetlands, including Ahuriri Lagoon. As the land rose, sea water drained from the lagoon, giving Napier more than 2,000 hectares of new land. The lagoon became productive land, and the site of the present Hawke’s Bay airport.

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