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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Hawke's Bay Floods

Phenomenal rain and cloudbursts have also been a frequent cause of damaging flooding and destruction. Here again the interference with natural conditions could be regarded as a contributory aspect of tragedy. One of the worst of these catastrophes occurred in Poverty Bay and Hawke's Bay in April 1938, when many thousands of acres of first-class farming land became a desolate waste as a result of what became known as the Esk Valley floods. The name given to the visitation suggests localised consequences which were in fact only a portion of the general effect. The whole provincial area from Napier in Hawke's Bay to Wairoa and Gisborne in Poverty Bay was deluged by torrential downpours which at their worst measured as much as 13 in. in 24 hours. Railway lines, road and telegraph communications, and bridges were swept away, in some cases right out to sea, and emergency measures on a national scale were necessary. A few days' rain wrecked a prosperous and fertile countryside and cost more than half a million pounds in public and private property.

Earlier in the year disaster occurred within the same area. On 18 February 1938 a cloudburst in the nearby hills overwhelmed a Ministry of Works construction camp at the tiny settlement of Kopuawhara, 35 miles north of Wairoa in Poverty Bay. Twenty-one persons, 20 men and one woman, were drowned in a brief night of terror when the usually harmless Kopuawhara Stream burst into mountainous, irresistible flood. There were four encampments in the locality accommodating hundreds of men, women, and children, but only one, No. 4 reserved for single men, lay in the direct path of the deluge. The floods rose late at night when the camps were asleep, and it was a miracle that the death roll was not a great deal higher. A special distinction attaches to the Kopuawhara casualty list in that no fewer than five of those who perished gave their lives in gallant but vain attempts to save others. Six months later, the Esk Valley floods having intervened, 1,000 acres of useful farming land were still under water in this area.