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Hawkes Bay Disaster [1931 Napier Earthquake] (1965)

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Published on Oct 4, 2012

The 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, also known as the Napier earthquake, occurred in New Zealand at 10:47 am on Tuesday 3 February 1931, killing 256 and devastating the Hawke's Bay region. It remains New Zealand's deadliest natural disaster. Centred 15 km north of Napier, it lasted for two and a half minutes and measured magnitude 7.8. There were 525 aftershocks recorded in the following two weeks. The main shock could be felt in much of the southern half of the North Island. Nearly all buildings in the central areas of Napier and Hastings were levelled.
The local landscape changed dramatically, with the coastal areas around Napier being lifted by around two metres. The most noticeable land change was the uplifting of some 40 km² of sea-bed to become dry land. This included Ahuriri Lagoon, which was lifted more than 2.7 metres and resulted in draining 2230 hectares of the lagoon. Today, this area is the location of Hawkes Bay Airport, housing and industrial developments and farmland. The death toll might have been much higher had the Royal Navy ship HMS Veronica not been in port at the time. Within minutes of the shock the Veronica had sent radio messages asking for help. The sailors joined survivors to fight the fires, rescue trapped people and help give them medical treatment. The Veronica's radio was used to transmit news of the disaster to the outside world and to seek assistance. The crew from two cargo ships, the Northumberland and Taranaki, also joined the rescue works, while two cruisers, HMS Diomede and HMS Dunedin, were dispatched from Auckland that afternoon with food, tents, medicine, blankets, and a team of doctors and nurses. The cruisers sailed at high speed overnight, arrived on 4 February and provided valuable assistance in all areas until their departure on 11 February.

The earthquake prompted a thorough review of New Zealand building codes, which were found to be totally inadequate. Many buildings built during the 1930s and 1940s are heavily reinforced, although more recent research has developed other strengthening techniques. To this day there are few buildings in Hawke's Bay taller than five stories, and as most of Napier's rebuilding took place in the 1930s when Art Deco was fashionable, Napier architecture is regarded today as being one of the finest collections of Art Deco in the world. Hastings was also rebuilt with many Art Deco and Spanish Mission style buildings.

This film produced by the National Film Unit. Hawkes Bay Disaster shows the devastation that occurred in the region. The National Film Unit was established to publicise New Zealand's participation and achievements during the Second World War. After 1945 the Film Unit expanded from producing weekly newsreels to making documentaries and films to the order of Government Departments. During its existence the Film Unit produced films for national organisations as well as many films on its own initiative. The private film industry in New Zealand relied heavily on the National Film Unit's extensive film processing facilities.

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Material supplied by Archives New Zealand


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On the morning of February 3, 1931, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale struck the Hawkes Bay area causing extensive damage in Napier, Hastings and surroundings. The scenes of devastation in this film were probably filmed the day after the 'quake as the completed (silent) film was examined by the Film Censor on February 5, 1931.


Technical details
( Sound Version 1965 ) B&W 15 mins.

Produced by Filmcraft Ltd. Photography by J.S. Vinsen & C.D. Barton Soundtrack recorded by N. Z. National Film Unit 1965

H.264 file of film telecine of 35mm film - Archives unique ID R7514655

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    • AdRev for a 3rd Party, AdRev Masters Admin (on behalf of JW Vault Collection (JW Media Music)); APM (Publishing)
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