Twenty-one people were killed in the Kōpuawhara flood of 1938 – the largest number of fatalities from a 20th-century flood in New Zealand. It is a sobering reminder of the dangers of building on low-lying land close to rivers.
In 1938, workers building the Wairoa to Gisborne railway near Māhia lived in huts and tents in public works camps along the banks of Kōpuawhara Stream. No. 4 camp was in a river valley, but appeared to be safely above the level of the tiny stream. In the early hours of 19 February, a cloudburst caused a flood that sent a wall of water nearly 5 metres high down the stream.
About 3.30 a.m., water began to pour across the lower levels of No. 4 camp. A worker there raised the alarm, banging the cookhouse gong and beating on the hut doors; his body was later found 5 kilometres downstream. Men struggled to get to higher ground through the rising water, and many scrambled onto the roofs of huts. Most huts collapsed and the people on them were swept away. Two men died after wading into the torrent to try to find the camp waitress; her hut had been one of the first carried away.
Eleven men at No. 4 camp had climbed onto a truck to escape the flood. The truck, used for carrying shingle, was tossed over in the stream and the men were washed away. The bonnet was later found 10 kilometres downstream, but the rest of the truck was never found.
Fourteen people survived by climbing onto the cookhouse roof, then leaping to the adjoining caterer’s quarters as the cookhouse collapsed. An elderly man tied himself to a hut with electric cable, and held a five-year-old girl above the water for an hour. Eventually a rope was carried from higher ground to the rooftop survivors, and they were hauled to safety.
At No. 2 camp, about 5 kilometres downstream, 47 people were sleeping. Men woke to find waves dashing against their tents, but the alarm was raised in time for everyone to struggle through the rising water to high ground.
In all, 20 men and one woman at No. 4 camp were drowned. One man was also drowned at Boyd's Camp at the Gisborne end of the railway line. He was swept away by the flooded Maraetaha Stream, as a result of the same cloudburst. In 1942 a memorial, which named all 22 victims, was set up to mark the site of the disaster.