Māori have many accounts of violent earthquakes in the early days of settlement, including one at Rotorua where it was said that a pā (fortified village) was swallowed up and the land became a lake.
From 1840, European settlers began arriving. Over the next century, there were several major earthquakes, including:
- Wairarapa, 1855 (magnitude 8.2). New Zealand’s most powerful recorded earthquake lasted nearly a minute. Wellington was worst affected, but many wooden buildings survived. Up to nine people died.
- Murchison, 1929 (7.8). Felt throughout the country, this quake caused damage in Nelson, Westport and Greymouth. Murchison was devastated by landslides which killed 14 people.
Hawke’s Bay, 1931
This magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck at 10.48 a.m. on 3 February 1931. It was New Zealand’s deadliest, crippling Napier and Hastings. In Napier, ornate stone buildings collapsed and people rushed outside, only to be hit by falling masonry and roofs. Others were trapped in rubble. Water pipes burst and fires soon raged, gutting the central district. 256 people died.
Aftershocks continued for months and many people moved to refugee camps. But within two years the city was rebuilt with safer buildings – many in the 1930s art deco style.
These major quakes have struck New Zealand since 1931:
- Wairarapa, 1942 (7.2 and 6.8). These two earthquakes caused damage in Masterton, Wellington, and other centres. In Wellington alone, 10,000 chimneys were damaged.
- Inangahua, 1968 (7.1). This rocked the northern South Island, throwing people out of bed. Roads were blocked and 50 bridges collapsed.
- Edgecumbe, 1987 (6.3). Although smaller, this quake caused major industrial damage. Dozens were injured and a huge crack appeared in the Rangitāiki Plains.
- Canterbury, 2010 (7.1) and 2011 (6.3). While the 2010 earthquake was larger, the 2011 earthquake was more devastating in Christchurch city. Most of the 185 people who died in the 2011 quake were killed in collapsed buildings.
- Kaikōura, 2016 (7.8). This quake caused significant damage to buildings and infrastructure in southern Marlborough and northern Canterbury. Two people died.