Friday, July 17, 2009

Call that an earthquake?

It's all been rather a disappointment. A whopping 7.8 on the Richter scale and all the newshounds could find was a puddle of shampoo on a supermarket floor, a small crack in a brick wall and a fisherman with surprised eyebrows whose boat had bobbed up and down a bit. Instead they were reduced to describing all the death and destruction that there would have been, had the quake struck somewhere where people actually lived - they worked up a fair head of steam over the potential destruction of Wellington, though those of us living north of the Bombay Hills were left unmoved by that as well.

They also had to hark back to the 1931 quake in Napier: same size, but 258 people were killed, and the city reduced to rubble. They did things properly in the old days...

>>> ...Napier is on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island in Hawke’s Bay where the good things of life are abundant: sunshine and scenery, orchards and wineries, restaurants and appealing architecture. It wasn’t always so: on a hot, muggy February morning in 1931 the people of Napier and nearby Hastings thought the world had come to an end when a 7.8 earthquake struck and reduced their towns to rubble, instantly splitting local history into Before and After.

Two minutes and 49 seconds of violent shaking centred just 15km north of Napier felled every chimney in the area, destroyed all but a handful of the Victorian and mock-Gothic buildings crowding Napier’s narrow streets, lifted 3000 hectares of land out of the sea, and killed 258 people in Hawke’s Bay. Four minutes after the initial massive shock, overturned Bunsen burners in three chemists’ shops started fires that swept through the city’s wooden buildings, unchecked by the fire brigade because all the water pipes had been fractured. ‘It was the death of the city,’ said the daughter of Arthur Bendigo Hurst, a professional photographer who made the decision, which haunted him for the rest of his life, to record the devastation instead of pitching in to help dig out survivors.

His photographs are on display in Napier, in the Hawke’s Bay Museum’s excellent Earthquake section, along with a 35-minute video of interviews with survivors, voice recordings, newspaper facsimiles, geological information and vividly personal items rescued from the ashes, like a pocketful of old pennies fused together by the heat. Hanging in one case is the brass ship’s bell from HMS Veronica, a small British warship which was moored in the harbour and was temporarily grounded when the seabed rose up. Crew from the ship were ashore within ten minutes of the quake, beginning a huge rescue operation and earning the city’s gratitude. The bell was rung on the 50th anniversary of the earthquake and again during the 75th commemoration ceremonies in 2006.

The death of the old Napier was followed in remarkably short order by the rebirth of the city rising like a phoenix from the ashes, but in a new form: Art Deco. The philosophy behind this new style of architecture and decoration was perfect for the occasion. Its recurrent motifs of sunbursts, speed lines, lightning flashes and leaping women symbolised the new spirit of the 20th century, which looked forward to a bright new age of technology, independence and progress. Napier became a magnet for both newly-graduated students of architectural design and men so desperate for work in the Great Depression that at least one is known to have cycled there from the other side of the country. In just two years, the city was transformed into a place of wide streets, cantilevered verandahs (supporting posts had shown themselves to be hazardous), a spacious Marine Parade and a harmonious collection of mainly Art Deco buildings, interspersed with Spanish Mission, another style popular in the day. The city has been described by the Chairman of English Heritage as a unique example of a planned and cohesive townscape, ‘the most complete and significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world’.

[Pub. The Age/Sydney Morning Herald 22/06/08]

2 comments:

the queen said...

I was horrifed to hear NZ had a 7.8. I assumed the Western half was flattened. My brain doesn't understand logarithmic scales, all I know is "5" is the worst I've experienced and "9" is what wiped out LA in the movie "Earthquake," which I was fortunate enough to see in the theater with Sensurround.

Big Dot said...

Yes, a surprising non-event. The news services came across as distinctly regretful. Um, we don't have a West, we have a North and South.

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