The Gisborne Earthquake of 1931. Part 1: Background

Three months after the devastating Hawke’s Bay earthquake and firestorm, communities along much of the North Island’s eastern coast were still in recovery and assessment mode.

Clearance of rubble had largely been completed in Manawatu, Wairarapa and the Gisborne – East Coast areas. Insurance assessors were still busy compiling their reports, and many chimneys had been repaired or replaced in preparation for the winter months.

In Hawke’s Bay itself, things were a little different. Damage here was far greater and clearance and reconstruction was a far greater challenge. Community dynamics had been seriously disrupted by the severe earthquake damage in Hastings and Napier, while the commercial heart of Napier had been destroyed by the massive firestorm which had raged in the earthquake’s wake. It would be many years before all evidence of collapsed or burnt buildings was removed.

Some people were still living in tents or with friends, and many women and children were still billeted out with friends and family in towns and cities around the country. Members of the Hawke’s Bay branch of my own family were spread between Levin and Wellington, where some of them completed a full year of schooling before returning home to the bay.

Disaster insurance was a private matter in those days, and most householders and business owners had little or no coverage to help them with rebuilding. It would be another 15 years or so before the Earthquake and War Damage Commission (now called EQC) was formed to help with disaster recovery.

New Zealand was already feeling the effects of The Depression, with work becoming scarce. However, the government took steps to make financial assistance available to residents of Hawke’s Bay and the Finance Minister appointed five members to the Hawke’s Bay Rehabilitation Committee in May 1931. £1,250,000 was temporarily withdrawn from the New Zealand reserve fund in London and placed at the committee’s disposal. Disbursements were to be made by loan or grant, with or without security under the minister’s guidance.

The Hawke’s Bay Earthquake Act also made provision for up to £250,000 to be made available to local authorities on an interest-free basis for a period of up to 5 years, with an interest rate of 4% p.a. thereafter.

Hastings recovered from the Hawke’s Bay earthquake faster than Napier as less of its commercial heart had been totally destroyed by post-quake fires. Communication with the town was easier than with Napier, and most news from the bay emanated from Hastings for several months after the quakes.

Aftershocks of the two magnitude 7 quakes on February 3rd and 13th had eased in both strength and frequency during March and April, but were still occurring at a rate above 1 per day during May 1931. The N.Z. Journal of Science & Technology Vol. XV (1933) reported 50 aftershocks during April, 44 during May, 42 during June and 28 during July of 1931.

However, newspapers reported that residents of Hastings were uneasy when a series of 7 earthquakes of considerable intensity were felt during the 24 hours from 6 a.m. on Wednesday May 6th 1931. A particularly alarming earthquake at 5:08 p.m. on the Wednesday evening was the most intense of the sequence until that time.

Further north, in Gisborne, debris clearance from the February quakes had been completed, and life was starting to return to normal. Residents and businesses had repaired or replaced many of their damaged chimneys and were now turning their attention to structural matters.

The inspections of February’s earthquake damage being undertaken in Poverty Bay by the Underwriter’s Association were virtually complete by May 6th, 1931. They were about to be suspended.

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