Tragic Flash Flood, 1938

An unexpected deluge on the East Coast caused widespread damage and claimed 22 lives on the 19th of February 1938. Communities between Wairoa and Te Araroa were swamped by what was described as a “cloudburst” which carried away bridges and houses, and washed away roads and hillsides.

Three days of dismal, occasional showery weather preceded the intensive 24 hours in which 6 inches (152 mm) of rain were recorded at Gisborne aerodrome up to 9 a.m. on Saturday 19th. The deluge in the steep mountainous country inland from Gisborne caused the region’s rivers to rapidly swell, accentuating the effects in the lower coastal areas.

Inland, at Matawai, heavy rain fell during a thunderstorm in the early morning hours, flooding roads near the Matawai Hotel. The Matawai-Motuhora road became impassable, cutting off access to Opotiki which ran via Motu in those days.

Floodwaters covered the railway line at Te Karaka, and delayed the daily “down train” to Gisborne. The nearby Kanakanaia Bridge depth gauge showed the Waipaoa River had peaked at 19ft. 6in. (5.9 metres) and floodwater had entered the nearby railway tunnel at 7 a.m. Water topped Kemp’s Bridge on the main north highway near Te Karaka by 10 feet (3 metres).

On the coast north of Gisborne, Tolaga Bay was isolated when a span of the old Uawa River bridge collapsed. Fortunately, the replacement concrete bridge was nearing completion and arrangements were made to expedite the formation of approaches to the bridge.

In Gisborne township, the Waimata River roared with floodwaters, and rapidly rose to 8 feet (2.4 metres) above its high water mark, and water covered lawns and riverbanks and surrounded the band rotunda on Read’s Quay.

South of Gisborne, along the route of the railway line being pushed south to Napier, conditions were just as bad, but more tragic. At Boyd’s Camp, an area occupied by a few houses built during the initial stages of the railway line construction near Muriwai, little but silt remained. During the early hours of the morning, the 30 residents were aroused by the sound of rushing waters and crashing logs and hastily vacated their houses at about 3:15 a.m. One resident was carried to his death when a huge wave swept away his house with him inside at the peak of the flood.

It was later determined that the nine huts swept away from Boyd’s Camp destroyed three bridges in a domino effect. Remnants of the huts swept away a wooden bridge which spanned the Maraetaha River and the combined debris then collected against the wooden structure of another nearby bridge. In due course the second bridge collapsed and the large mass of timber and debris swept down the river to destroy a modern two-lane reinforced concrete bridge downstream just before dawn.

Further south there were a number of railway construction camps where men were building the Napier to Gisborne railway link under the public works scheme which operated during the depression era. At Camp No. 4 toward the coast near Morere, a flash flood hit with devastating force.

Less than half the workers in the single men’s part of the camp survived to tell of the disaster. They awoke to the sound of deep rumbling in the nearby stream, and stepped out into several inches of water which had already invaded the camp. The water level rose so quickly that they had enough time to run only a few yards before the water rose to thigh level. Some lost precious time in trying to rouse those still sleeping and were swept away in three waves which passed through the camp in short succession, each wave raising the water level by three to four feet.

The 19 survivors of the tragedy could do little from their refuge on the cook-house roof as 21 were swept away to their death. There were several stories of heroic acts such as that of the man who entwined one hand into a bunch of wires as he was swept off his feet while holding onto a young girl. They swung in the torrent for nearly an hour before being able to scramble onto part of the cook-house as the flood subsided.

It was later suspected that spoil from railway formation upstream that had been dumped into the creek, which generally carried a foot of water, may have been the cause of the successive waves. It was suggested that one of the fillings may have collapsed and caused a temporary dam which burst during the downpour.

The deluge passed down the valley tearing down bridges and washing out roads; collecting, as it went, over 1500 sheep, trees, rocks, tents and buildings from the single men’s camp, including steel girders weighing several tons. The unfortunates in such a maelstrom did not stand a chance.

At No. 2 Camp, 5 km downstream, something of a miracle occurred. The flash flood passed through the camp with most of the debris passing between the huts and tents. Whilst some of the huts were turned at odd angles, no lives were lost.

[source: The Poverty Bay Herald 19th and 21st February 1938.]

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