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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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    • claudiafox profile image


      9 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Useful record, Lissie. I will link to this item now. My grandfather saved the family fortunes in the midst of the Great Depression when he moved from Christchurch to Napier after the Napier earthquake. He worked as carpenter for three years re-building wooden houses. He worked in Napier for three years, and sent money home.

    • Survival Supply profile image

      Survival Supply 

      9 years ago

      Earthquake preparedness can save lives. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      This hub is interesting. It has mad me learn so much about earthquakes

    • travelespresso profile image


      11 years ago from Somewhere in this exciting world.


      Nice hub. My dad was a four year old and living in Napier when the earthquake hit. Their house was badly rocked, damaged and the ground on the farm opened up wide cracks. He said they slept outside in a makeshift shelter over the fountain for some nights afterwards. Very scary.

    • Lissie profile imageAUTHOR

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      12 years ago from New Zealand

      I did - theres a link to it above - that's what gave me the idea -there are similarities in the two stories! Thanks for reading

    • thelesleyshow profile image


      12 years ago from US

      I just read a similar earthquake hub on Libson 1755. This is fabulous! Thanks for sharing.

    • Lissie profile imageAUTHOR

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      12 years ago from New Zealand

      Yeah Californians know something about earthquakes! Yeah right place/wrong place is something you can't prepare for - well I don't think so anyway!

    • profile image

      Nolimits Nana 

      12 years ago

      Living on the west coast of North America, we're always aware that the 'big one' can occur. Thanks for an interesting hub. I always like the historical view.

    • Savings Lady profile image

      Savings Lady 

      12 years ago

      This ia a great article on earthquake preparedness. Sometimes luck can be the best preparation possible in case of natural disasters, as it happened in your story.

    • Montana Farm Girl profile image

      Montana Farm Girl 

      12 years ago from Northwestern Montana

      Wonderful hub, great information! I was raised in earthquake territory, central California near San Francisco. I know all too well, the destruction they cause...very scary!! Super Hub!!

    • Lissie profile imageAUTHOR

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      12 years ago from New Zealand

      Small world - yes I would say it would have been strong in Taupo - that's closer than Wellington (for those whose NZ geography is hazy!) I like Taupo but a bit too far from the sea for me to live their permanently

      Thanks for dropping by

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      12 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Having a home at Taupo NZ earthquakes are always at the back of your mind. An elderly friend remembers hearing the earthquake in Napier and they lived 400 miles away. Scary stuff!

    • frogdropping profile image


      12 years ago

      Lissie - really fab! History is soooo important, even when it's so horribly tragic. Great stuff!

    • Lissie profile imageAUTHOR

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      12 years ago from New Zealand

      Sorry agrande - Im going to bed soon that will help! Yeah I decided these could be out in the open as they aren't really a niche though there is a nice paying adsense word in this one... I use the photos from and it says you have to "attribute" so I stick the link in - lots of people don't but I don't think it hurts. The b&w are public domain so they aren't attributed.

      @Kelvin well its a hub not a lens but thanks anyway! Yes I love Napier - its a very pleasent town!

    • profile image

      Kelvin Lim 

      12 years ago

      Great lens Lissie! The earthquake in Napier has resulted to something good as well, and something that the city is now proud, and that is the Art Deco architecture..

    • agrande profile image


      12 years ago from Oregon, USA

      Slow down Lis, i'm going to be spending all day commenting on your hubs if you keep up this pace. And these are only the ones I know about. I really like how you are dealing with photos in this hub. Do you just have to put a photo credit at the end of the hub in order to be legal?

      I'm sure glad I know who the goto person for Hubs is. :-) Thanks for helping with all the answers.


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