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Civil Defence & Emergency Management
~ Ngā Whakahaere Whawhati Tata

civil defence

1931 Earthquake

A house above Faraday Street that was not destroyed.Type of Event: earthquake
When: 3 February 1931
Where: Napier and Hastings, Hawke's Bay

In 1931, the cities of Napier and Hastings were devastated by New Zealand's deadliest earthquake. At least 256 people died in the magnitude 7.8 'quake - 161 in Napier, 93 in Hastings and two in Wairoa. Many thousands required medical treatment.

An earthquake is measured by its size, known as its magnitude.

Californian seismologist (earthquake researcher) Charles Richter developed the Richter scale as a means of comparing one earthquake with another.

The Richter scale calculates the size of an earthquake by measuring ground movement at its epicentre, using the height of the biggest shockwave and the time between tremor waves. These measurements are recorded by a seismograph. However, the actual impact of an earthquake can also be affected by its depth.

Another method for measuring earthquakes is the Modified Mercalli scale, which determines the intensity of the earthquake, or the actual effect on people, buildings and the ground itself.

What happened?

  • At 10:47am on 3 February 1931, a violent shock closely followed by a second rocked Hawke's Bay for almost three minutes.
  • A tanker offshore felt a violent vibration, and the seamen on board saw Napier covered by a cloud of rising dust.
  • 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.
  • Dust rose in clouds from shattered buildings, making it difficult for people to breathe, and huge splits appeared in the roads.
  • Panic-strickened people ran down to the beaches where they hoped to be safe. As the water in the bay receded with the rising of the land, many thought a tsunami was on the way but this was not the case.
  • The first victims of the earthquake were people who 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. Most of the deaths in Napier and Hastings were in the town centres.
  • Attempts to rescue the trapped and injured began almost at once. The local people were helped by sailors from the HMS Veronica.
  • Some would-be rescuers were themselves killed when buildings collapsed further, or more earthquake tremors struck.
  • 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 centre soon after the earthquake.
  • Napier's gas supply was shut off three minutes after the first tremor, and the risk of fire from electrical faults was avoided because fuses on street power poles had blown out.
  • The fires started in three chemist shops where gas jets were kept burning to melt the wax used to seal prescriptions. The shops also had a lot of flammable materials including different types of oil.
  • Water for fighting the fires ran out because underground pipes had cracked and broken. Fighting the fires became impossible.
  • Rescuers fought to bring out trapped and injured victims from the rubble before the fires reached them, but many died in the inferno. Because human lives were the first priority, many valuable records and goods were lost in the blaze.
  • The day had been fine, after a long spell of hot dry weather. A wind blew up not long after the earthquake, and this helped spread the flames. Napier burned for 36 hours before the fires finally died out.
  • Napier Hospital's nurses' home, built only a year earlier, collapsed, claiming the lives of 12 nurses. A rest home was destroyed, killing 14 of the elderly men living there.
  • Napier Boy's High School's assembly hall was severely damaged, but fortunately all the boys had left the building. At Napier Technical College, however, 10 boys and two teachers died when a room collapsed.
  • Napier's courtroom became the morgue where bodies were laid out to be identified by relatives.
  • 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 main roads in Napier and Hastings were blocked by mountains of rubble, while landslides caused more damage in the hilly parts of both areas.
  • Napier houses built on the hillside suffered a lot of damage, especially two-storey houses.
  • Most of Napier's brick and stone buildings were destroyed and many wooden buildings were wrecked. In Hastings, 20 kilometres away, brick buildings and chimneys also collapsed. Water supply systems in both cities no longer worked.
  • Tram tracks in Napier were twisted out of place. Because power was lost, trams came to a halt. When the town was rebuilt, the tram lines were not restored.
  • A 90-year-old man buried in the earthquake rubble was finally dug out alive three days later.
  • Almost 200 buildings were destroyed in Hastings. Most of the deaths were in a department store, but 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.

How many died?

256 (161 in Napier, 93 in Hastings, two in Wairoa)

Other events and outcomes

  • The earthquake was felt throughout New Zealand apart from the Auckland peninsula and Otago.
  • The hands of the clock on the band rotunda in Napier stopped when the earthquake struck at 10:47 am.
  • Telephone and telegraph lines went down in Hawke's Bay so information about the earthquake and requests for help were sent by wireless operators on the HMS Veronica and other ships.
  • Crew from the Veronica and other ships in the area collected food supplies and other goods from evacuated buildings in Napier and delivered them to the emergency camp and hospital set up at Greenmeadows. This camp operated for six weeks.
  • Napier was officially evacuated the day after the earthquake. With water and sewage supplies out of action, the risk of disease was high. Over 5000 people left town, including many of the less seriously injured.
  • Half-destroyed buildings were completely demolished for safety reasons. Explosives were used to make a hole in the cemetery big enough to inter 54 coffins in the first burial service.
  • The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale. There was no seismograph in Hawke's Bay, but the waves of the earthquake were measured in Wellington and other places around New Zealand.
  • The main fault was buried under the earth's surface and the earthquake didn't break it. Instead it 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.
  • The impact of the earthquake was greater than the Murchison earthquake a year earlier, because it struck in an area with a higher population. Structures in the area were not earthquake-resistant, and collapsing buildings and falling debris contributed to the high death toll.
  • 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.
  • The Hawke's Bay earthquake is the worst natural disaster ever recorded in New Zealand.


  • Ansell, Rebecca. Caught in the crunch: earthquakes and volcanoes in New Zealand. Auckland, 1996
  • Boon, Kevin. The Napier earthquake, Petone, 1990
  • Morris, Bruce. Darkest days, Auckland, 1987
  • New Zealand's heritage, Vol. 6. Wellington, [1971-73]
  • Rogers, Anna. New Zealand tragedies: Earthquakes. Wellington, 1996
  • Christchurch City Libraries

 Napier Earthquake 1931 Images

Russell Street,The Hastings Post Office tower collapsed, flinging the clock bells across the intersection of Hastings and Queen Streets.   The ruins of the Club Tea Rooms on the corner of Karamu Road and Heretaunga Street, Hastings.  Abandoned vehicles on the Embankment Road.  Napier Earthquake building damage and the buildings today.  Napier Buildings after the 1931 Earthquake, some where lucky.  Napier Buildings after the 1931 Earthquake, some where lucky.  Napier Buildings after the 1931 Earthquake, some where lucky.  Napier Buildings after the 1931 Earthquake, some where lucky.  Napier Buildings after the 1931 Earthquake, some where lucky.  Napier Buildings after the 1931 Earthquake, some where lucky.  The Marine Parade at the end of Emerson Street.  The corner of Russell and Heretaunga Street, Hastings.  Sailors picking through rubble in Emerson Street.   Sailors being transported by truck to help clean up.  Hastings Post Office tower collapsed.   A house above Faraday Street that was not destroyed.  Shakespeare Road, Downtown Napier - what wasn't destroyed by the earthquake was later consumed by fires.  Hastings Street, looking towards Bluff Hill.  The Marine Parade at the end of Emerson Street.   The Nurses Home at the Napier Hospital.  Sightseers as they view the massive slip at the base of Bluff Hill.  The HMS Veronica moored at the Port of Ahuriri.  The Westshore Embankment, which carried the road and railway north.  The intersection of Browning, Hastings and Tennyson Streets.  The destruction from the 1931 earthquake.  Man walking around in the rubble after the 1931 earthquake.

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