Homage to The Earthquake
By Andrew Frame

I have a love-hate relationship with earthquakes.

The physics behind them is fascinating. Last year’s Fiordland quake shifted the bottom of the South Island 30cm closer to Australia – not bad landscaping for millions of tons of rock, eh?

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake, such as the one that struck Hawke’s Bay in 1931, produces the same amount of force as 600 Megatons (600 Million tons) of explosives. The “Little Boy” nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima was around 15 Kilotons (15 thousand tons). So if I do the maths (without blowing a blood vessel): To try and recreate the 1931 quake, you would have to set off 40,000 “Little Boy” sized nuclear bombs 20km below Waipatiki Beach. These are mind-bogglingly big, scary numbers (especially if you live at Waipatiki Beach).

So much for theory.

Earthquakes themselves scare the living hell out of me. I can’t even bear to stand in the earthquake simulator at Te Papa for more than a few seconds. At the mere hint of a decent shake I will easily break the land-speed record between any given point and the nearest doorframe. I guess it’s a control thing. There’s not a lot you can do when everything around you is moving of its own free will.

This Thursday marks the 79th anniversary of the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake. Growing up in Napier, earthquakes were an ever present part of life. We had them occasionally. We learned about them in school; read books about them. We even lived, worked and shopped in buildings constructed directly after “The Quake” (except no one cared as much about the architecture back then).

My two late Great-Aunts even experienced the 1931 earthquake first hand. One was working at Bestall’s (now Jessica’s Design Store) in town when the earthquake struck, and had to scramble out of the wreckage of the shop once the shaking had ceased. She remembered seeing gold and silver rings and necklaces from a nearby jewelry store strewn over Hastings Street. Usually fair game to light fingers, they were completely untouched as people were either too shocked to notice or already beginning rescue efforts.

Her younger sister, like so many of the children at Nelson Park School, had just gone outside to play when the earthquake struck. Both aunts survived to reach very respectable ages.

256 people were not so lucky.

This is why I’m forever disappointed at how little focus there is on the actual 1931 earthquake during Art Deco Weekend. This year, one lecture and a survivors’ tea (providing someone organizes it, unlike a previous year) are the only obvious homages to the earthquake itself.

Without the seismic event, there would most likely have been no major architectural design change in the city. It was the key event that brought the people and the city together. Yet the nearest most Deco goers get to remembering the earthquake is post-cocktail wobbles on vintage heels. I would love to see more of a focus on the earthquake and the people’s recovery from it at a future weekend, rather than just “drink, drink, dress up, oh look at the buildings!”

The Hawke’s Bay Museum’s exhibit is a great touchstone to the event, mixing the past with the present. Modern earthquake information streamed onto screens via Geonet’s website mixes with artifacts of the 1931 earthquake. “Survivors’ Stories” documents people’s memories of that fateful day in February, and is shown in a tent constructed of the same material the original survivors’ camp tents were made of.

Alternatively, a drive out to the Park Island Cemetery and visit to the Earthquake memorial is a touching tribute. A few meters walk from the memorial is a panoramic view of a large portion of Napier. The hill, Hawke’s Bay and the raised lagoon area … the grander legacy of change brought on by the earthquake.

So, before the frivolities of the upcoming Art Deco Weekend take hold, take a moment this week to remember the earthquake, the survivors, those not so fortunate, and the city’s spirit, which rose from the ashes and rubble … making our city what it is today.

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1 Comment

  1. How about taking the Inner Harbour Tour (p23 of the Art Deco Weekend programme) This interesting tour covers the 1931 earthquake including viewing the land it reclaimed and most importantly the earthquake memorial at Park Island.

    Also, the Survivors Afternoon Tea is indeed to be held on 14 February.

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