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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Earthquakes, Seismic Waves, Floods and Droughts

Earthquakes, Seismic Waves, Floods and Droughts

Poverty Bay escaped lightly on the occasion of the tragic earthquake which caused 151 deaths in and around Napier, 92 at Hastings, two at Wairoa and one at Mohaka on 3 February, 1931, and, in addition, did damage to property in Hawke's Bay to the extent of £5,000,000. The first shock, at 10.46 a.m., rocked buildings in Gisborne, and members of households, as well as business staffs, rushed out of doors. Fortunately, it was playtime at the primary schools. At the High School (according to the rector) “the pupils marched out with perfect discipline, and behaved with perfect composure.” When the lady attendants in the Telephone Exchange were ordered to leave the building they did so “like soldiers on parade.” Many chimneys were affected, but only a few business premises suffered structural damage.

The first reference to an earthquake affecting the East Coast districts appears in the Rev. C. Baker's journal for 8 July, 1843. This upheaval was especially severe at Wanganui, where a large portion of Shakespeare Cliff fell into the river. Mr. Baker, who was then a resident at Tolaga Bay, says: “Felt a shock of earthquake for a few minutes or so. All my family were alarmed. The natives said that it was the division between winter and summer.”

Only tremors were felt in Poverty Bay on the occasion of the unnerving earthquake which so greatly alarmed the residents of Wellington on 17 October, 1848. Its successor, on 23 January, 1855, was marked in Poverty Bay by heavy jolts, accompanied by rumbling. The upheaval which shook Hawke's Bay in February, 1863, spread to, but did not do any damage higher up, the coast. A shock, which was described as “the worst ever known in the district,” occurred on 31 August, 1886. The parapet on Whinray's premises was disrupted by a shock on 4 December, 1898. No damage occurred in Poverty Bay on 2 August, 1903, when 13 shocks in Hawke's Bay between 3.40 a.m. and 10.10 a.m. slightly damaged the cathedral and other buildings in Napier. A shock on 9 August, 1904, which dislodged portion of Bluff Hill and cracked brick walls at Napier, was not severely felt in Poverty Bay.

An earthquake which affected both Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay at 1.27 a.m. on 16 September, 1932, was the most damaging ever experienced in Gisborne. It disrupted the parapets on several buildings, broke some “island” windows, damaged the Central School and Holy Trinity Church, and broke off some hundreds of chimneys. As a safety measure, the post office clock was taken down, the parapets on many buildings were reduced, and a number of buildings were reinforced. The adoption of more stringent by-laws has, it is believed, rendered the town immune from serious damage by earthquakes. A shock in the Tokomaru Bay-Tolaga Bay area damaged 70 chimneys on 16 June, 1947, and some scores of tremors in the Motu-Matawai district on 22 August, 1947, led to damage to 40 chimneys.

A fairly heavy, but not a damaging, earthquake at 8.33 a.m. on 26 March, 1947, was followed by two seismic (or so-called “tidal”) waves which affected the coastline between Tokomaru Bay and Mahia. It was most intense between Whangara and Tatapouri. The initial surge at 8.40 a.m. rose about 25 feet above normal sea level at Pouawa. A smaller comber followed a few minutes later. Mr. and Mrs. A. F. Hall, who page 367 had a beach cottage at Turihaua Point, had an alarming experience. They were in the kitchen with a lady visitor when the first outsize wave rushed in. With the water up to his neck, Mr. Hall held on to the mantelpiece, and the women clung to him. Before the next big wave came inshore they had reached a safe spot. Their home was practically destroyed.

At Tatapouri the waters reached up to the windowsills of the hotel, wrecked a motor shed and carried away some small buildings. A “bach” and motor shed nearby were demolished. The superstructure of the 36-year-old wooden bridge over the Pouawa River was carried half a mile upstream. In Gisborne inner harbour the sea rushed in at about 5 feet above spring tide level. Just north of Mahia the natives made a large catch of fish which had become trapped in low-lying maize fields. A smaller seismic wave, which followed an earthquake on 19 May, 1947, was most pronounced along the beaches adjacent to Tolaga Bay, but it did not do any damage.

Seismic waves had been experienced on the East Coast on several earlier occasions. In August, 1840 (Opotiki Native Land Court minute book, No. 9), a wave of this character threw H.M.S. Buffalo on shore at Whitianga (Mercury Bay) and wrecked her. Tokato block (between Te Araroa and Hicks Bay) was strewn with fish. A wave 10 feet high rushed inshore at Cape Runaway in August, 1868. Violent earthquakes had just been experienced in Peru.

An extraordinary swelling of the sea was observed in Poverty Bay at 4 a.m. on 11 May, 1877. Three hours later a large wave rushed up Turanganui River. In seven or eight minutes it rose as many feet, and then as quickly subsided. The crew of the Go Ahead, which was aground at the entrance, lost no time in scrambling up the rigging. A cargo that had been landed at Port Awanui for Tuta Nihoniho was swept away. On 9 May, Iquique (Chile) had been destroyed by an earthquake, and violent upheavals had also been experienced in the Dutch East Indies. Waves three feet higher than usual came tumbling into Poverty Bay at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on 29 August, 1883. This disturbance was believed to have had its origin in the Dutch East Indies, where, after a series of intense paroxysms, only a trace remained, on 28 August, of Krakatao, a volcanic island in Sunda Strait.