The Gisborne Earthquake of 1931. Part 2: The Event

Residents of Poverty Bay had felt many of the aftershocks of the Hawke’s Bay quakes of February 1931 and, as they decreased in frequency, life began to return to normal.

Forty kilometres inland from Gisborne, at the small settlement of Tiniroto, the 40-odd residents were well-advanced with building and chimney restoration work by May of 1931. However, they had noticed a peculiar aspect of the earthquakes since February.

They reported that, about 10 seconds before each movement, a deep rumbling noise was heard, culminating in a deep thud like the explosion of a mine as the first shock was felt. There seemed to be no preliminary shake (which we now know to be caused by the arrival of a p-wave), with the quakes being felt as a severe jolt of an upward thrust without swaying motion. [Poverty Bay Herald, Thursday May 7, 1931]

A resident of Wharerata, about 25 km south-east of Tiniroto, made this account of the morning of Thursday 7th of May 1931 in the Poverty Bay Herald of the same day: “There was a slight tremor at 2:19 a.m. I arose and felt a bit anxious. Then came the big shake – at 2:24 a.m. It was very severe, the worst I have ever experienced. Earthquakes continued at frequent intervals until 6.30 o’clock. There have been 37 or 38 shakes, the latest being at 11:35 a.m. and a pretty severe one.”

In other small settlements nearby, residents reported alarming experiences. At Bartlett’s they experienced a severe rattling shake followed by 17 severe tremors over the next half-hour.

At Morere and Nuhaka the quake was strongly felt, with Nuhaka reporting 25 tremors over the next six hours. Both settlements reported little damage.

At Tiniroto, the 2:19 a.m. foreshock was not reported, but residents certainly felt the main event. Chimneys fell, water tanks burst, crockery was broken and some stoves were thrown into the middle of rooms. The shaking was as severe as that experienced during the big Hawke’s Bay quakes in February, and many residents abandoned their damaged homes to spend the rest of the night on the verandah of the local hotel.

Gisborne was plunged into darkness as a protection device at the Tuai power station reacted to a disturbance on the distribution line to the Patutahi sub-station, and the power remained out for some time. The town centre quickly filled with the occupants of nearby houses and hotels and anxious business owners checking for damage. The Poverty Bay Herald described the crowd as one “which would have rivalled the usual Saturday night attendance in the shopping area.”

Just as after the 1966 quake, premises in Peel Street were badly shaken, having shed parapets which buried footpaths to a depth of two or three feet. Many premises lost windows and suffered major stock losses. Some buildings which had been damaged during the February earthquakes showed additional damage with walls bulging outward, masonry falling through rooves, and walls and rooves separating. At least 200 chimneys fell in the suburbs of Gisborne which had a population of nearly 14,000 at the time.

Inspection of buildings resulted in Mr R. J. Kerridge closing his Regent Theatre for repairs after it was found that the western wall, damaged by the Hawke’s Bay quake, had suffered additional damage. Several other commercial buildings also required urgent attention.

Communication with surrounding districts was not disrupted and it was quickly established that the initial earthquake was felt severely at Wairoa but only moderately at Napier and Hastings. It was felt severely at Te Karaka, Opotiki and Tolaga Bay, less severely at Tokomaru Bay, but not at all at Ruatoria, Tikitiki or Te Araroa.

With the Hawke’s Bay earthquakes still fresh in their minds, Gisborne residents were understandably anxious about family and friends to the south. When the first of the Hawke’s Bay quakes had struck on February 3rd 1931, it had taken some time for contact to be established with Wairoa, Hastings and, eventually Napier. Family records show that it wasn’t until about four in the afternoon on that day that information came through that Napier had been “destroyed” and was “in flames.”

Fearing a repeat of the disaster, people gathered outside the Herald office seeking news. Whilst communication links were not disrupted, the telephone exchange was “swamped.” The Poverty Bay Herald reported, “… with every available operator engaged at the boards there were times when the exchange could not cope with the demands for information.” Gisborne had a continuous manual telephone service from October 1912, but did not have an automatic telephone exchange until May 1941. [Mackay]

The Herald continued, “Throughout the morning, inquiries were received at the Herald office from local residents anxious as to the effect of the earthquake on the previously devastated areas to the south of Gisborne. The announcement that Napier and Hastings, with Wairoa, had felt a shock of less intensity that that registered in Gisborne was received with much satisfaction.”

Analysis of felt reports indicated that the centre of the disturbance was near Wharerata, south-west of Gisborne. It was clearly recorded on the instruments at the Kelburn observatory which also reported a less severe quake at 5:23 a.m. near Murchison in the South Island. Subsequent analysis has never accurately determined the magnitude of the earthquake, which is still recorded as magnitude 6+. [Eiby]

A strong aftershock in the afternoon was felt severely at Wairoa at 4:20 p.m. and at Gisborne at 4:25 p.m. Residents of Tiniroto described this quake as just as severe as the main shock, and all abandoned their homes to camp at the hotel on Thursday night as it had the only chimney still standing in their district. The beleagured residents were greatly alarmed at the almost continuous shaking, reporting 107 earthquakes in the nine hours to 6 a.m. on the morning of Friday 8th May 1931.

To add insult to injury, Tiniroto was assailed by a cold southerly storm and the community was isolated from Gisborne by a slip on the road toward Hangaroa. The residents rationed crockery while the Poverty Bay Herald reported “Gaping holes in roofs, through which the tops of chimneys have fallen, are letting the rain into some of the houses, while many others are so badly strained as to make them completely ineffective in keeping out the moisture and cold wind.”

Once again, Poverty Bay residents set about cleaning up the rubble, clearing the roads and getting life back to normal. Earthquake activity eased as the aftershock activity merged into that being felt from the February Hawke’s Bay quakes.

But to borrow another phrase from Mackay, nature was “in freakish mood” and an even larger seismic event was looming. The residents of Poverty Bay did not have long to wait…

[sources for both parts:
The Poverty Bay Herald, May 7-9, 1931
private family records
G.A. Eiby, “Earthquakes,” Heinemann Reed, 1989 ed’n
J.A. Mackay, “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast N.I., N.Z.,” 1982 ed’n
NZDSIR, Bulletin 43, “Report of the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake,” (incl. extract from N.Z. Journal of Science and Technology, Vol XV, No. 1), Govt Print, 1933.]

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