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Quake disaster remembered
Bigwigs: Cars wend their way down a
lane cleared through the rubble of the
1931 Napier earthquake in a scene
which may resonate with Christchurch
people upset that only dignitaries
appear to be getting access to the
Christchurch central business district.
The caption notes that the lead car
carried a (not named) cabinet minister.
Illustration scanned from the book The
Hawkes Bay Earthquake by Robert
McGregor, first published in 1998 by
the Art Deco Trust of Napier.
In 1931 Napier and Hastings faced reconstruction after the massive earthquake. One local council was
replaced by commissioners and the other stuck with its elected members. The outcome was dramatically
different. MATTHEW WRIGHT, one of New Zealand's most published historians, writes.
It is 81 years this month since a
7.8 magnitude quake shattered
Hawke's Bay, killing 258 people.
More than 400 were hospitalised
with serious injuries and more than
2500 were hurt. It was a national
disaster. Relief efforts drew in the
Like Christchurch since its devas-
tating earthquakes in 2010 and
2011, the district was rocked for
months afterwards by aftershocks
that seemed to have no end.
Devastation was so great in
Napier's town centre -- also gutted by
fire -- that it had to be rebuilt from
scratch. And speed was of the
The quake came on top of a major
recession -- one that soon turned into
the worst depression in national his-
tory. Townsfolk could not be hung
out to dry.
To get results, the government
replaced the Napier Borough Council
with a two-man commission, geared
to cut through red tape. It all
happened very quickly.
J S Barton, a retired magistrate,
and L B Campbell, of the public
works department, were appointed
on March 11, just five weeks after
the quake. First priority was getting
the commercial heart of the town
Within a few months a temporary
shopping centre -- Tin Town'' -- was
operating on the edge of the central
Work started as soon as possible
on the permanent rebuild. Survey
records had been destroyed in the
quake, risking protracted argument,
but Barton and Campbell used their
powers to cut through all debate.
Property owners got compensation --
The first new downtown building
was under way just months after the
Work gained pace when the gov-
ernment passed new building
regulations in 1932. The town cen-
tre, with a fair number of new build-
ings already complete, was formally
re-opened just 23 months after the
disaster. Barton and Campbell were
so popular there was talk afterwards
of getting rid of the old council and
keeping them on as town admin-
Napier's experience stood in sharp
contrast to Hastings. The town once
touted as the Christchurch of the
north'' had not been as heavily hit as
The government saw no need to
appoint commissioners. The council,
under mayor G F Roach, got services
back up and issued 194 permits for
temporary buildings to get the town
centre running again.
But the recovery soon wallowed
amid in-fighting, the biggest battle
being over whether to widen the
town's main street.
Internal affairs department town
planner J W Mawson set the cat
among the pigeons in April 1931,
when he told a public meeting that
new buildings should be set back 1.8
metres along Heretaunga St between
Willowpark and Tomoana roads.
A former mayor, George Ebbett,
who owned property in the street,
petitioned the council to stop it.
Roach countered by setting his own
temporary premises back and
launching a counter-petition.
Although property owners led by
Ebbett voted 21 to six against, the
council decided to adopt the scheme.
But then it stalled amid a further
counter-attack from Ebbett.
All this was in line with local body
processes of the day -- in some ways
reflecting the battle lines of pre-
quake politics. But reconstruction
along the main street was delayed
for months. Many of the temporary
buildings were still there in the mid-
1930s and in 1939 nine were
reclassified as permanent.
History and circumstance never
quite repeat -- the past is in many
ways a foreign land. But past
experiences can still offer
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