Hawke's Bay's annual commemoration of its 1931 earthquake started yesterday with the annual survivors' afternoon tea at Napier Boys' High School, attended by Minister of Civil Defence Nikki Kaye.

Jointly organised by Napier City Council, Hawke's Bay Regional Council, Art Deco Trust, Red Cross and the school, the gathering was held for 105 people who were invited, commemorating the earthquake on 10.47am February 3, 1931, which claimed 256 lives.

Among those present were oldest survivor Jean Williams, aged 103, and the youngest, Peter Dawe, who was less than a day old when the 7.8-degree quake struck.

Ms Kaye said the quake was a "pivotal event" in Hawke's Bay history and 85 years later remains New Zealand's most devastating disaster in terms of loss of life.

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Hawke's Bay's recovery was a "noted success", being renowned now for its Art Deco architectural heritage, while last year when there was a nationwide earthquake drill Hawke's Bay had the joint second-highest participation rate.

She said Canterbury was now on it own "journey of recovery" after its earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, after which Hawke's Bay was quick to respond with offers of support and help, including opening homes to victims needing a break away from the catastrophe.

Events marking the 85th anniversary of the 1931 earthquake on Wednesday include a mid-morning town clock commemoration in Hastings.