Story: Floods

Page 3. The Kōpuawhara flash flood, 1938

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Twenty-one people were killed in the Kōpuawhara flood of 1938 – the largest number of fatalities from a 20th-century  New Zealand flood. 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 the 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 raised the alarm, banging the cookhouse gong and beating on 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 of the huts collapsed and the people on them were swept away. Two men died after wading into the torrent to try to find the camp’s waitress; her hut had been one of the first carried away.

Eleven men at No. 4 camp climbed onto a truck used for carrying shingle to escape the flood. The truck was toppled over and the men were washed away. Only the bonnet was found later, 10 kilometres downstream.

Fourteen people survived by climbing onto the cookhouse roof, then leaping to the roof of 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 drowned at Boyd's Camp. at the Gisborne end of the railway line. He was swept away by the Maraetaha Stream, which was in flood as a result of a downpour produced by the same weather system. In 1942 a memorial which named all 22 victims was set up to mark the site of No. 4 camp.

How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, 'Floods - The Kōpuawhara flash flood, 1938', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Eileen McSaveney, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 1 Feb 2024