Story: Historic earthquakes

Fireman in the wreckage of the Napier earthquake

In Māori tradition Rūaumoko, god of earthquakes, caused rumblings and shaking as he walked about, and European arrivals soon experienced the frightening power of the land they hoped to settle. Since 1840 several major quakes have disrupted towns and cities, and caused injury and death. The worst was in Hawke’s Bay in 1931: it claimed 258 lives and altered the landscape forever. But it also led to world-class design and construction standards – and to a better understanding of the hazards facing communities in a geological danger zone.

Full story by Eileen McSaveney
Main image: Fireman in the wreckage of the Napier earthquake

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Early days

Māori have many accounts of violent earthquakes in the early days of settlement, including one at Rotorua where it was said that a (fortified village) was swallowed up and the land became a lake.

European settlement

After 1840 European settlers began arriving. Over the next 80 years there were several major earthquakes, including:

  • Wairarapa, 1855 (magnitude 8.2). New Zealand’s most powerful recorded earthquake lasted nearly a minute. Wellington was worst affected, but many new wooden buildings survived. Up to nine people died.
  • Murchison, 1929 (7.8). Felt throughout the country, this caused damage in Nelson, Westport and Greymouth. Murchison was devastated by landslides, which killed 14 people.

Hawke’s Bay, 1931

This magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck at 10.48 a.m. on 3 February 1931. It was New Zealand’s deadliest, crippling Napier and Hastings. Napier’s ornate stone buildings collapsed and people rushed outside, but were hit by falling concrete and roofs. Others were trapped in rubble. Water pipes burst and fires soon raged, gutting the central district. At least 256 people died.

Aftershocks continued for months and many people moved to refugee camps. But within two years the city was rebuilt with safer buildings – many in the 1930s art deco style.

1942 onwards

The major quakes that have affected New Zealanders since 1931 are:

  • Wairarapa, 1942 (7.2 and 6.8). These two earthquakes caused damage in Masterton, Wellington, and other centres. In Wellington, a total of 10,000 chimneys were damaged.
  • Inangahua, 1968 (7.1). This rocked the northern South Island, throwing people out of bed. Roads were blocked and 50 bridges collapsed.
  • Edgecumbe, 1987 (6.3). Although smaller, this quake caused major industrial damage. Dozens were injured and a huge crack appeared in the Rangitāiki Plains.
  • Canterbury, 2010 (7.1) and 2011 (6.3). While the 2010 earthquake was larger, the 2011 earthquake was more devastating in Christchurch city. Most of the 185 people who died in the 2011 quake were killed in collapsed buildings.
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How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney. 'Historic earthquakes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 7-Mar-16
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/historic-earthquakes