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Rising from the ruins

by Roy Clare - Friday, 22 February 2013

View of earthquake fissures running down a road. Two cars have toppled into the cracks and two men look on.

Collins, Tudor Washington. (1931) [Napier earthquake]. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH88/4 env2 p3.

Today, 22 February, our country recalls the magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch that killed 185 people and injured several thousand two years ago. The earthquake occurred more than five months after the first in September 2010, but it is considered to be an aftershock. The pair of quakes are among the most significant natural disasters in New Zealand history.

Our thoughts and prayers will be with those tens of thousands of New Zealanders and many others whose lives have been changed forever by the experiences; these numbers including many colleagues among our staff and volunteers here in the museum.

Reflecting on that, and having recently visited Hawkes Bay, I recalled a date in February 82 years ago when New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake devastated the cities of Napier and Hastings. Our own collections hold images of the devastation that was caused including these Tudor Collins images.

Christchurch City Libraries website has an interesting feature, from where I have edited the following notes:

At least 256 people died in the magnitude 7.8 earthquake; many thousands more required medical treatment. HMS Veronica had just berthed in Napier’s inner harbour when the earthquake hit. The Captain at first thought there had been an explosion on board, but then saw the wharf twisting, and beyond it houses and other buildings crumpling to the ground. Dust rose in clouds from the shattered buildings, making it difficult for people to breathe; huge splits appeared in the roads. 

Telephone and telegraph lines were down in Hawke’s Bay, so information about the earthquake and requests for help had to be sent by wireless operatos onboard Veronica and other ships. The sailors from Veronica and other ships in the area collected supplies of food and other goods from the evacuated buildings in Napier and took them to the emergency camp and hospital set up at Greenmeadows. This camp stayed in operation for six weeks after the earthquake.  

Napier was officially evacuated. With water and sewage pipes out of action, the risk of disease was high. Over 5000 people left the city, including many of the injured that could be moved. Half-destroyed buildings were completely demolished in the interests of safety. Explosives were used to make a hole in the cemetery big enough for 54 coffins in the first burial service. When Napier was rebuilt, the streets were widened and the services improved, including the installation of New Zealand’s first underground power system.

As we all know, central Napier was reconstructed to reflect the architectural fashion of the time, Art Deco. Visiting Napier today, there is encouragement to those who now dedicate their lives and energies to see Christchurch re-built. Do spare a moment to remind ourselves of the ambitious plans as they currently stand: Christchurch Development Unit

Given the traditionally gutsy Kiwi resolve, No8 wire and all, the city will be re-built, but let’s pause for a moment on Friday … in doing so we can communicate our energy and spur on the efforts. We can be confident that – like Napier – Christchurch will rise again.

And especially let’s lend a moment of reflection to those known to us, particularly colleagues of our museum and friends, who suffer still and whose courage will be part of re-generating the future for a proud and important city at the heart of all New Zealanders.

  • Post by: Roy Clare

    Roy Clare is the Director of Auckland War Memorial Museum. He came to New Zealand in 2011 from the United Kingdom where he was Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) from 2007. The MLA'’s responsibilities included the accreditation of Museums, the designation of outstanding collections and the administration of a range of schemes to develop the strength and reputation of collections, and encourage their accessibility to people.

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