28 December 1989

Newcastle Earthquake




It was fortunate that a strike by local bus drivers in the regional NSW city of Newcastle resulted in the streets being unusually quiet on Thursday 28 December 1989. Just before 10.30 am, an earthquake rocked the city centre. Worst hit was the Newcastle Workers Club where the main floor collapsed, killing nine people and leaving many more trapped beneath the rubble. Another three people died in other parts of Newcastle, bringing the final death toll to 13, and a further 160 people were seriously injured. The shock measured 5.6 on the Richter scale, making it one of the most powerful ever recorded in Australia. The damage bill was estimated at A$4 billion, with over 35,000 homes, 147 schools, and 3,000 other buildings damaged over an area of 9,000 km2. Around 300,000 people were affected by the damage and 1,000 were made homeless.


Although earthquakes are not common in Australia, they are by no means unknown. In 2012, a magnitude 5.4 earthquake occurred in Gippsland, southeast of Melbourne, while a magnitude 5.0 quake occurred in the same region in 2000. In 2011, a magnitude 5.3 earthquake occurred in central Queensland and, in 2010, a magnitude 5.0 earthquake caused significant damage to Kalgoorlie, east of Perth in Western Australia.


While the main danger during earthquakes is the collapse of man-made structures (“earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do”), the potential after effects such as liquefaction, fires, chemical and radioactive spills, flooding and tsunamis can be equally devastating. Many of those after effects were seen following recent earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand and Fukushima, Japan. Transport and communication is disrupted, water supplies may become contaminated, and the tasks of rehousing and rebuilding can be monumental.


Unlike many other natural disasters, earthquakes come with little or no warning. They are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and carry a high threat to life and possessions. Aftershocks over the subsequent days or weeks serve to increase fear of recurrence and feelings of vulnerability. As such, they can lead to a range of psychological adjustment problems. Earthquakes, however, are disasters that affect whole communities – community resilience, or the ability of the people to stick together and support each other through the crisis, will be a key factor in recovery.