The Hawke's Bay Earthquake, 1931
Catastrophes are of the order of events often loosely labelled. Comparatively few deserve the distinction, but in New Zealand it will be generally accepted that the Hawke's Bay earthquake merits isolation as the Dominion's greatest disaster. Napier and Hastings in ruins, and half-a-dozen lesser provincial centres shattered in February 1931, represent the worst tragedy in the history of the Dominion. From the debris of earthquake and fire, the bodies of 256 dead were recovered, and no precise inventory has ever been made of the injuries suffered or the material resources lost. At the time, the earthquake was estimated to have cost £5,000,000 in Napier and nearly £2,000,000 in Hastings.
It was at 10.47 a.m. on 3 February 1931 that the first shock struck Hawke's Bay. Milne's Earthquakes (1939 edition, by A. W. Lee, a standard world text on such matters) described and illustrated the occurrence at length, and Dr Charles Davison, a recognised British authority, included the Hawke's Bay upheaval in his selection of the world's 18 worst earthquakes in the last 200 years. It would be idle to attempt in short compass a detailed description of the destruction of Hawke's Bay's two main centres. In Napier, familiar landmarks completely disappeared. Bluff Hill, a substantial suburban promontory, crumbled and all but disintegrated; Ahuriri Lagoon, a wide stretch of water, was upthrust to the extent of producing 9,000 acres of dry land; and some of the city's largest structures—the Nurses' Home, a Home for the Aged, the Technical College, the Public Library, the Cathedral, and countless warehouses, office blocks, and dwellings—collapsed with heavy loss of life. And what the quake did not destroy a great fire did its best to consume. With the city's fire-fighting facilities in ruins, Napier was ablaze within a few minutes of the earthquake, the flames sweeping through 10 acres of buildings. And in all this 161 people died. In Hastings the story was much the same. Traders, shoppers, and workers died where they stood as the town toppled. And in the evening, after a second violent shock at dusk, fire added to the general chaos. In one large department store customers and staff perished together, and in a leading hotel trapped men died in the second wave of tremors while rescuers toiled to release them. A total of 93 lost their lives in Hastings.
The earthquake's trail of destruction stretched over 300 miles from Wairoa (where two deaths occurred) to Dannevirke and north Wairarapa. North of Napier great stretches of coastline slipped into the sea and, throughout the whole provincial district, roads, railways, bridges, communications, and public services were either destroyed or disrupted. Hillsides disappeared, rivers were blocked or changed their courses, and huge cracks and fissures opened all over the countryside. The stricken population, up to 30,000 in the centres, were deprived of every elementary necessity of life—food, water, light, telephones, and transport. And to complete the devastation and add to the terror, the earth continued to quiver and shake for 10 days, some of the succeeding shocks equalling the intensity of the first disastrous upheaval. The story of courage, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice displayed in those days in the shattered areas is an inspiring one, but nothing became Hawke's Bay more in its adversity than the completeness and expedition of the rehabilitation it achieved with nationwide assistance under the two commissioners appointed to direct the huge task of reconstruction.