1931 Earthquake

At 10:47am on 3 February 1931, the hands of the clock on the band rotunda in Napier stopped turning

On this calm Tuesday morning in Hawke's Bay, the region was rocked by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that violently shook for three minutes.

Tragically 256 people lost their lives in the quake (161 in Napier, 93 in Hastings and two in Wairoa) making the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake the deadliest natural disaster in New Zealand's history. Many thousands more were injured.

The earthquake left in it's wake an unimaginable level of destruction and devastation. Dust rose in clouds from shattered buildings, making it difficult for people to breathe, and huge splits appeared in the roads. Panic-stricken people ran out to onto the street and were struck by falling masonry, as stone decorations on many buildings crashed to the ground. Many were killed instantly when buildings collapsed, but others were buried alive in the rubble. 

To add to the initial devastation of the earthquake, fires burned throughout the city of Napier for a full 36 hours before they could be contained - levelling most buildings that had survived the initial assault of the quake.

Napier was not the only city impacted. Almost 200 buildings were destroyed in Hastings, and most of the deaths there were in a single department store, though many also died in the public library. Hastings also suffered from fires and the firefighters had problems with their water supply, but the spread of the fire was not as great as in Napier.

Rescue efforts

The response to the earthquake is a story of heroism in the face of extremely adverse and challenging circumstance. Water for fighting the fires ran out because underground pipes had cracked and broken. Fire engines at Napier's central fire station were covered in debris from the destroyed brigade building, and they couldn't be used when fires broke out in the town. Napier Hospital's nurses' home, built only a year earlier, collapsed, claiming the lives of 12 nurses. Rescuers fought to bring out trapped and injured victims from the rubble before the fires reached them, but many died in the inferno. Emergency hospitals were set up but, lacking medical supplies, the doctors and nurses were limited in what they could do to help the injured. Back-up medical teams were sent from Auckland on board Navy ships and from Wellington by train.

The HMS Veronica had just tied up in Napier's inner harbour when the earthquake hit. Captain Morgan initially thought there had been an explosion on board, but he then saw the wharf twisting and beyond it houses and other buildings crumpling to the ground. Sailors from the HMS Veronica went offshore and began the rescue effort, and due to the damage caused to telephone and telegraph lines, information about the quake and requests for help were sent by wireless operators on the HMS Veronica and other ships.

Mercifully, among the countless stories of tragedy and loss there are also heart-warming stories of survival. A full three days after the quake for example, a 90-year-old man who was buried in the earthquake rubble was finally dug out alive.

A city forever changed

The topography and landscape of Napier was altered significantly and permanently by the earthquake. The main fault was buried under the earth's surface heaved up the land, setting off two smaller faults which broke on the surface. The sea floor just off Hawke's Bay was lifted more than 2.7 metres, and the Ahuriri Lagoon and tidal flats were drained. Hawke's Bay Airport is sited on land that was once part of the lagoon.

When Napier was rebuilt, the streets were widened and its improved services included New Zealand's first underground power system. The architectural fashion of the time was known as Art Deco, and central Napier is almost entirely built in variations of this style. One beautiful legacy from an otherwise tragic chapter of Napier's history.


- Adapted from an Article by Napier City Council