Historian Katie Pickles has been drawing comparisons between the Christchurch earthquakes and the Hawke's Bay earthquake of 1931.
Two years on from the horrific earthquake that killed 256 people, Hawke's Bay was ready to party. Moving right along to greet the future, the New Napier Carnival was held in January 1933 to celebrate significant progress in rebuilding that would create a new, modern central city.
Amid a global depression, and with the February 3, 1931 magnitude 7.8 earthquake still fresh in the memory, a week of celebrations included a pram race, a children's parade and a grand finale procession led by the Carnival Queen, Miss Sheila Williams, daughter of a prominent art deco architect.
The Hawke's Bay disaster has frequently been cited in Canterbury over the past two years. A message of resilience, hope and new life has focused on the contemporary art deco architecture that featured prominently in the rebuild and has become an important and celebrated part of Napier's post-quake heritage. The disaster is the go-to success story used by those calling for Christchurch to embrace the new, and rebuild in the architectural styles of today.
Yes, Napier did rebuild its destroyed Anglican cathedral, which bore a strong Gothic resemblance to Christchurch's Anglican cathedral in the Square, even sharing Benjamin Mountford as the architect. It took until 1965 for the replacement Hawke's Bay cathedral to be mostly completed, and it was 2005 before the last three windows were installed. It was executed in a modernist style, and bears little resemblance to its predecessor, instead evoking a Spanish mission in South America.
The history of the Hawke's Bay earthquake has much more to offer than new modern buildings. There are eerie similarities to the Canterbury experience in the disaster itself, the immediate reaction, and the rebuild.
By way of comparison, both the Hawke's Bay earthquake and the Canterbury event of February 22, 2011 occurred in the daytime and in the summer. In both places, people were going about their daily business. In Napier and Hastings chimneys fell down, churches crumbled, and fires broke out in the centre of town. Unlike Christchurch, with the proximity of the city centre to the waterfront, in Napier people fled to the beach. In the mammoth geological upheaval the tide went out on the Ahuriri Lagoon and never returned, stranding sea creatures and providing land for the future airport.
Echoing the Canterbury earthquake of February 22, most of the Hawke's Bay fatalities were in downtown areas. As with the CTV and PGG Buildings in Christchurch, the Napier nurses' home and technical college, and Hastings' Roach's Department Store and Grand Hotel became death traps. Also similar in downtown Napier and Hastings were the deaths from elaborate falling masonry, in many cases as people ran outside into the streets.
In Hawke's Bay there was a rapid response from the military as HMS Veronica was in port and the Navy spread news of the disaster, before rushing to assist with rescue and recovery. Reinforcements including doctors, nurses, medical equipment and supplies, tents, shovels and picks were sent via sea from Auckland and arrived the following morning. Eighty years later in Christchurch, the army helped police and international rescue teams, and Australian police flew in to complement national services.
The cities shared a sombre experienceof the search for survivors and the identification of bodies amid continuing aftershocks. In Hawke's Bay, a temporary morgue was set up in the courts building, and the protocol was much less developed and culturally advanced than at Burnham after February 22, 2011.
With many survivors bewildered and in severe shock, a communal interment was held at the Park Island Cemetery on February 5, 1931. Closure and commemoration for Canterbury victims at the Avonhead Park Cemetery interment site took considerably longer.
As in Christchurch, electricity, sewerage and chimneys were all down in post-quake Hawke's Bay. Residents also initially fled Napier and Hastings and returned later. Most left in cars, but some desperate people fled on foot, with Palmerston North a popular destination. In Christchurch, leaving by air was an option for some. In Napier, the army erected tents to house more than 2000 people in Nelson Park within two days of the earthquake. And more than 6000 people were evacuated in the following fortnight from the transfer station at Hastings Park, with another estimated 2000 travelling independently. An estimated 70,000 people left Christchurch after February 22, and, as occurred in Hawke's Bay, many subsequently returned.
The suspension of everyday life in Hawke's Bay after the earthquake is something many Cantabrians could identify with. Because it was summer, terrified people could stay out of damaged homes and camp outside. Water was delivered daily by truck. Frequent aftershocks rocked the area in the weeks following the major earthquake, with approximately 525 aftershocks recorded in two weeks, the largest a magnitude 7.3 on February 13.
New Zealand quickly moved on to a recovery phase, and in March 1931 the Hawke's Bay Earthquake Act was passed. It gave sweeping powers to two appointed commissioners. The government provided some assistance but most reconstruction was funded by the private sector and charitable donations. There was no EQC to call upon.
The two commissioners in office until May 1933 were John Saxon Barton, an accountant, barrister and magistrate, and engineer Lachlan Bain Campbell.
In a parallel process, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act was passed on April 18, 2011. Soon afterwards the two men appointed to oversee the recovery effort were Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and the head of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), engineer Roger Sutton.
Mirroring Canterbury's situation, Barton and Campbell placed a moratorium on new building. They sought to clear away the debris and then, with their committee, to embrace modern town planning principles in order to get the rebuild right. As in 21st century Christchurch, the Government appointed the Fletcher Construction Company to lead the Hawke's Bay rebuild.
Similarly, the building of a shopping centre at Napier's business heart was prioritised. Fletcher's created "Tin Town" with areas for shops and commerce. Christchurch's pop-up container shopping mall in metal shipping containers immediately springs to mind.
As with the current royal commission in Christchurch, there were attempts after the Hawke's Bay disaster to raise standards to prepare New Zealand for future earthquakes. Those celebrating at the 1933 New Napier Carnival would have been horrified if they could have gazed into the future and see parallels with Canterbury. This is why it is so important to learn from the past, and as the worn cliche goes, not be doomed to repeat it.
Dr Katie Pickles is Associate Professor in History at the University of Canterbury. In November and December 2012 she is teaching a new summer school course, Recovering Christchurch: 1850-2010, focusing on aspects of Christchurch's history before the Canterbury earthquakes.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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