February 3, 1931 started as a normal day in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. People had gotten up, breakfasted, said goodbye to loved ones and gone to work. At 10.47am, their world changed. A massive earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter scale, rumbled and shook the area for two and a half minutes, quickly devastating lives and buildings, killing 256. It is still New Zealand’s largest natural disaster.
The central town of Napier was essentially wiped off the map according to the Dominion newspaper, with 161 killed. 93 were killed in the other central town of Hastings. 400 were hospitalized and thousands of injuries occurred.
It was not just the towns and villages that were affected. The earthquake was so strong that it lifted the ground in the coastal regions of Napier by about two meters. Even more shocking is the 40 sq km area, that included the Ahuriri Lagoon, that was lifted 2.7 meters and turned into dry land. In fact it is where the Hastings Airport can now be found, as well as commercial and housing developments.
Shortly after the earthquake came the fires. Fires that consumed the region and towns, leaving behind further death and destruction in its wake. The Masonic hotel burst into flames after a pharmacy caught fire and the wind picked up, sending the blaze throughout the city. Fire crews did their best but water mains were broken in many places and they had to let some fires just burn out, unable to rescue the people who were trapped. By the end of the fires, Napier was decimated.
There was one stroke of good luck that saved many people. The HMS Victoria was in port and sent messages for help within moments of the quake. The sailors helped in fighting fires, rescuing people and giving whatever assistance they could. Two other merchant ships arrived quickly to help as well.
One interesting case of human nature and finding good where you least expect it occurred in a group of inmates of the jail who were working in Bluff Hill. When six of them were buried, the other prisoners dug them out. Two were killed but the rest stayed together and made no attempt to escape.
Investigations showed that the buildings in the Hawke’s Bay region were totally unable to withstand a strong earthquake. Rebuilding occurred at the height of the Art Deco movement and to this day Napier is known as having some of the finest Art Deco architecture in the world.
These images show the shock and horror of the earthquake. It is easy to forget how terrible it was before adequate building codes were in place and how high the loss of life due to the lack of buildings built to withstand a quake could be.