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Earthquake Preparedness: Lessons from Napier 1931

Updated on July 6, 2011

Earthquake Preparedness: Napier 1931

Earthquake preparedness has come a long way since the 1931 earthquake in Napier, New Zealand. For example is the very little damage and injuries in the recent Christchurch earthquake. The earthquake destroyed both Napier and nearby town of Hastings and is possibly the most deadly single disaster in New Zealand's history. Either 256 or 258 people died. But out of the death and destruction came the beginning of New Zealand's world leading earthquake building standards and a country which now leads the world in terms of earthquake preparedness.

Napier at the time was a prosperous country town of 16,000 residents. New Zealand was still in the grips of the recession but the farming sector wasn't doing to badly. The pictures of pre-earthquake Napier shows a well-laid out city with substantial Victorian buildings or three or four stories. None of them survived the magnitude 7.8 earthquake which struck at 10:47am Tuesday 3 February - the first day of the new school year.

Napier Earthquake Destruction

Hastings Street, Napier
Hastings Street, Napier
Emerson Street, Napier
Emerson Street, Napier
Earthquake destruction, Napier 1931
Earthquake destruction, Napier 1931
Napier 1931
Napier 1931

Earthquake Survival - A Suvivor's Story

My mother was a child living in Wellington at the time (some 200km away) and distinctly remembered the shake which destroyed chimneys even there. But I have never forgotten talking to an old man who had been an eye witness to the Napier earthquake. He was in his 80's when I knew him and he had been a young boy at the time - he probably should have been at school (he would have been 6 or 7 in 1931) but wasn't. He was helping his father making deliveries with a horse and cart. They were outside of the city itself - travelling towards the new Nurse's Home at the top of the hill. When the quake was struck is was thrown to the ground - he remembered hearing a roar and looking up to see the brand-new Nurses Home collapsing, as if in slow motion, killing a number of off-duty night-shift nurses - who was sleeping inside at the time.

If he had been at school he may have died as students at the brick constructed Napier Technical College and the Marist Father's Seminary did.

Of course their house was gone to - he remembered that his parents and a number of kids lived in a tent for many months afterwards - no one really wanted to go back inside anyways - there were 575 after shocks in the following two weeks. In fact it took years for the city to be rebuilt - but when it was it was to something special.

Earthquake Remodelled Napier

As is typical of most earthquakes in New Zealand, the Napier shake led to a land rising about two meters. Some 40km2 of what had been sea-bed became instant reclaimed land. The Hawkes Bay Airport is built on in as well as large tracts of industrial land.

The navy ship HMS Veronica was in port and was left high and dry after when the earthquake - it was a very lucky break for Napier though. The ships radio still worked so they were able to raise the alarm - otherwise it could have been days before outside assistance came.

One of the curiosities that came out of the Napier earthquake was the idea of "earthquake weather" - that hot, still, humid weather predicts an earthquake. I remember my mother's generation really believing that - fortunately hot,humid and calm weather is pretty rare in Wellington - but Mum would sometimes say it if we got the odd nice day. As a geologist I could tell her and do tell you that there is no correlation between weather and earthquakes!

Earthquake Preparedness and Napier

The appalling loss of life and destruction saw a huge revision of New Zealand's earthquake building standards. The city was rebuilt - predominantly in strongly reinforced concrete and brick. Which doesn't sound that exciting until I mention that Napier is one of the world's be preserved Art Deco cities...

Napier Art Deco City

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Photo credits: Gouldy99 and catspyjamasnz


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