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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Nature in Freakish Mood

Nature in Freakish Mood

Earthquakes, Seismic Waves, Floods and Droughts

Poverty Bay escaped lightly on the occasion of the tragic earthquake which caused 151 deaths in and around Napier, 92 at Hastings, two at Wairoa and one at Mohaka on 3 February, 1931, and, in addition, did damage to property in Hawke's Bay to the extent of £5,000,000. The first shock, at 10.46 a.m., rocked buildings in Gisborne, and members of households, as well as business staffs, rushed out of doors. Fortunately, it was playtime at the primary schools. At the High School (according to the rector) “the pupils marched out with perfect discipline, and behaved with perfect composure.” When the lady attendants in the Telephone Exchange were ordered to leave the building they did so “like soldiers on parade.” Many chimneys were affected, but only a few business premises suffered structural damage.

The first reference to an earthquake affecting the East Coast districts appears in the Rev. C. Baker's journal for 8 July, 1843. This upheaval was especially severe at Wanganui, where a large portion of Shakespeare Cliff fell into the river. Mr. Baker, who was then a resident at Tolaga Bay, says: “Felt a shock of earthquake for a few minutes or so. All my family were alarmed. The natives said that it was the division between winter and summer.”

Only tremors were felt in Poverty Bay on the occasion of the unnerving earthquake which so greatly alarmed the residents of Wellington on 17 October, 1848. Its successor, on 23 January, 1855, was marked in Poverty Bay by heavy jolts, accompanied by rumbling. The upheaval which shook Hawke's Bay in February, 1863, spread to, but did not do any damage higher up, the coast. A shock, which was described as “the worst ever known in the district,” occurred on 31 August, 1886. The parapet on Whinray's premises was disrupted by a shock on 4 December, 1898. No damage occurred in Poverty Bay on 2 August, 1903, when 13 shocks in Hawke's Bay between 3.40 a.m. and 10.10 a.m. slightly damaged the cathedral and other buildings in Napier. A shock on 9 August, 1904, which dislodged portion of Bluff Hill and cracked brick walls at Napier, was not severely felt in Poverty Bay.

An earthquake which affected both Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay at 1.27 a.m. on 16 September, 1932, was the most damaging ever experienced in Gisborne. It disrupted the parapets on several buildings, broke some “island” windows, damaged the Central School and Holy Trinity Church, and broke off some hundreds of chimneys. As a safety measure, the post office clock was taken down, the parapets on many buildings were reduced, and a number of buildings were reinforced. The adoption of more stringent by-laws has, it is believed, rendered the town immune from serious damage by earthquakes. A shock in the Tokomaru Bay-Tolaga Bay area damaged 70 chimneys on 16 June, 1947, and some scores of tremors in the Motu-Matawai district on 22 August, 1947, led to damage to 40 chimneys.

A fairly heavy, but not a damaging, earthquake at 8.33 a.m. on 26 March, 1947, was followed by two seismic (or so-called “tidal”) waves which affected the coastline between Tokomaru Bay and Mahia. It was most intense between Whangara and Tatapouri. The initial surge at 8.40 a.m. rose about 25 feet above normal sea level at Pouawa. A smaller comber followed a few minutes later. Mr. and Mrs. A. F. Hall, who page 367 had a beach cottage at Turihaua Point, had an alarming experience. They were in the kitchen with a lady visitor when the first outsize wave rushed in. With the water up to his neck, Mr. Hall held on to the mantelpiece, and the women clung to him. Before the next big wave came inshore they had reached a safe spot. Their home was practically destroyed.

At Tatapouri the waters reached up to the windowsills of the hotel, wrecked a motor shed and carried away some small buildings. A “bach” and motor shed nearby were demolished. The superstructure of the 36-year-old wooden bridge over the Pouawa River was carried half a mile upstream. In Gisborne inner harbour the sea rushed in at about 5 feet above spring tide level. Just north of Mahia the natives made a large catch of fish which had become trapped in low-lying maize fields. A smaller seismic wave, which followed an earthquake on 19 May, 1947, was most pronounced along the beaches adjacent to Tolaga Bay, but it did not do any damage.

Seismic waves had been experienced on the East Coast on several earlier occasions. In August, 1840 (Opotiki Native Land Court minute book, No. 9), a wave of this character threw H.M.S. Buffalo on shore at Whitianga (Mercury Bay) and wrecked her. Tokato block (between Te Araroa and Hicks Bay) was strewn with fish. A wave 10 feet high rushed inshore at Cape Runaway in August, 1868. Violent earthquakes had just been experienced in Peru.

An extraordinary swelling of the sea was observed in Poverty Bay at 4 a.m. on 11 May, 1877. Three hours later a large wave rushed up Turanganui River. In seven or eight minutes it rose as many feet, and then as quickly subsided. The crew of the Go Ahead, which was aground at the entrance, lost no time in scrambling up the rigging. A cargo that had been landed at Port Awanui for Tuta Nihoniho was swept away. On 9 May, Iquique (Chile) had been destroyed by an earthquake, and violent upheavals had also been experienced in the Dutch East Indies. Waves three feet higher than usual came tumbling into Poverty Bay at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on 29 August, 1883. This disturbance was believed to have had its origin in the Dutch East Indies, where, after a series of intense paroxysms, only a trace remained, on 28 August, of Krakatao, a volcanic island in Sunda Strait.

Destructive Floods

Mainly on account of the growth of settlement on the Poverty Bay Flats, a big flood in January, 1876, did more damage than any of its predecessors. At Wharekaia 22.85 inches of rain fell in a week. The flood waters broke out of Awapuni Lagoon, flattening the sandhills and reaching the bay. At Kaiariki the Greene family awoke to find that their home was on the opposite side of the river to that on which it had previously stood. A boat was sent from Gisborne to rescue seven women and six children who were marooned at Makauri. Mrs. Bilham, who lived on the western side of the Waipaoa River, was rescued by a yacht. A. Ross (manager for J. U'Ren at Tutoki) was drowned.

An inundation in the 1820's was called by the natives the Kingi Hori (King George) flood. William Williams and E. F. Harris mention a very heavy flood which caused the Waipaoa River to form a new outlet in 1841, but the former regarded a flood in June, 1847, as the heaviest since his arrival in 1840. In the eyes of the natives, however, neither was sufficiently severe to earn the award of a special title. The Wikitoria (Victoria) flood in March, 1853, must have been worse. It was not named after Queen Victoria, but in honour of a notable local woman who died about that time. She might have been Wikitoria Hineko, one of Paratene Turangi's wives. W. L. Williams says that silt was deposited over a page 368 large portion of the Flats. This flood was described by the Rev. T. S. Grace as “much heavier than the oldest Maori remembers.” A winter of great scarcity followed.

The bursting of the larger lake at Papuni led to grotesque conjectures on the part of the natives as to how the flood had originated. Wi Pere (Native Land Court, May, 1878) said that the cataclysm was attributed to a sea serpent. Some natives had claimed that they had seen it lying among some boulders. It had, they averred, enormous teeth. They also believed that it eventually fell over Te Reinga Falls and that its remains were picked up at Napier!

A flood in July, 1906, caused so much water to overflow from the Waipaoa River into the Taruheru River that a sandpump was swept away, Nelson Bros.' bridge was carried down to Carnarvon Street, and the Grey Street and Lowe Street bridges over the Waikanae Creek were badly damaged. During a flood in September, 1909, Thomas Robinson (18 years old) was drowned in Gold Creek, Otoko, and Dudley McKenzie (27 years) lost his life in the Waihuka stream. Continuous rain from midday on 28 March until the afternoon of 1 April, 1910 (17.27 inches) led to a flood which was held to have been 18 inches higher in and around Te Hapara than the 1876 flood. At Bushmere the Waipaoa River rose 27 feet above normal level. Four feet of water flowed over Nelson Bros.' bridge over the Taruheru River. Some of the small town bridges were damaged, and roads and bridges on the East Coast and in the Wairoa district suffered. George Alfred Connor was drowned in Waikanae Creek.

[References to the disastrous floods on the East Coast in 1916–17 appear in the chapters dealing with Uawa County and Waiapu County.]

Poverty Bay's most destructive flood occurred on 14 May, 1948. In the early portion of the storm, half of the roof of the grandstand on Childers Road Reserve was blown off. A house in Andrew Street, Te Hapara, was blown over, but the inmates (Mrs. Green and two children) escaped injury. Lightning struck down a large willow tree in front of G. Carlin's house at Makaraka, broke the windows and damaged a chimney. The lower portion of the Flats was covered with a huge sheet of water. Over 100 residents of Victoria Township were billeted in the town.

Between Kaiteratahi and the sea 21,000 of the 39,000 acres of flat land were submerged. Dennis John Russell Willis (21 years old) was swept from his horse and drowned at Whatatutu. Stock losses included 250 head of cattle, 16,000 sheep and 360 pigs. A. D. Todd (engineer to the Poverty Bay Catchment Board) estimated that the Waipaoa River brought down 40 million tons of silt. Shingle was deposited on several flats above Whatatutu which, previously, had been subject only to silting.

Lack of rain in Poverty Bay during the summer of 1875–6 rendered the countryside “more parched than has ever been known before.” In 1913, the driest year on record, only 25.40 inches of rain fell. What is regarded as “the worst period of drought on record” on the East Coast occurred between September, 1885, and January, 1886. Only 7 inches of rain fell during the seven months. Large numbers of stock died. In Poverty Bay conditions were nearly as bad. Prayers for rain were offered in Holy Trinity Church, Gisborne, in December, 1907. During the 77 days between 30 November, 1912, and 15 February, 1913, rain fell on only 12 days, and the aggregate was only 1.58 inches. It was estimated that over 20,000 head of cattle died in the Poverty Bay-East Coast area during a drought in 1926–7.

The earliest heavy gale recorded in Poverty Bay was that which blew down the big Native church at Manutuke in November, 1842. High winds page break
Woolship Lochnagar on Waikanae Beach, Gisborne, 27th October, 1880.

Woolship Lochnagar on Waikanae Beach, Gisborne, 27th October, 1880.

s.s. Star of Canada wrecked on Kaiti Beach, Gisborne, 23rd June, 1912.

s.s. Star of Canada wrecked on Kaiti Beach, Gisborne, 23rd June, 1912.

page break
Busy scene in old inner harbour, Gisborne, 1904.

Busy scene in old inner harbour, Gisborne, 1904.

H.M.S. Philomel and s.s. Takapuna in old inner harbour, Gisborne, February, 1914.

H.M.S. Philomel and s.s. Takapuna in old inner harbour, Gisborne, February, 1914.

page 369 in August, 1902, dislodged the Tatapouri Hotel balcony and destroyed most of the decorations displayed in Gisborne in honour of the coronation of King Edward VII. In May, 1907, heavy seas, lashed by a gale, hid the breakwater and groyne at Gisborne. On 25 April, 1910, a southeasterly threw foam on to the verandahs of houses in Victoria Township, the Orete was driven on shore at Tokomaru Bay, and the sea entered the post office at Tuparoa. Much damage to fences, hoardings, etc., was caused by the gale which drove the Star of Canada on to Kaiti Beach in June, 1912. A fierce westerly in March, 1928, stripped the leaves off maize growing in exposed positions on the Flats. During Christmas, 1933, a woolshed at Waingake was blown down.

Hills Mantled With Volcanic Ash

The residents of Poverty Bay and the East Coast were thrown into a state of great alarm at 2.40 a.m. on 10 June, 1886, by a series of loud detonations caused by Mount Tarawera erupting. The ground shook and buildings creaked. Flashes of fire shot up into a dense white mass which, at first, assumed the shape of a mushroom, but which, later, obscured the whole sky. Showers of fine ash fell over Poverty Bay, the fall being most pronounced around Ormond. Beyond Anaura the hills were mantled. On Tuparoa run the pasture was hidden. At 10 a.m. it was as dark as at midnight at Wai-o-matatini. The Southern Cross ran into a dense cloud of dust off East Island and put out well off the land. [When Mount Ngauruhoe was active on 30 April, 1948, grey, gritty ash, not quite as fine as flour, drifted over to Poverty Bay.]

A shocking tragedy occurred whilst sheepdog trials were in progress at Matawai on 2 April, 1948. Lightning zigzagged among a group of onlookers standing on a rise. Graham Leslie Hooper (aged 18 years), a shepherd, of Motuhora, was killed. Treatment for shock had to be given to: Ronald Harris, aged 36, Motuhora; Norman Johansen (31), Motuhora; Thomas Mitchell (37), Te Karaka; Mrs. Mitchell (44), his wife; and Mrs. Roy Leggatt (35), Motu. Only Mr. Hooper's hair and scalp bore traces of burning, but his clothes were torn to tatters. Mr. Johansen was rendered unconscious. A dog, which was standing between Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell (who were only six feet away from Mr. Hooper), was also killed. The concussion threw the bystanders down.

During the night of 19 February, 1938, a cloudburst caused unprecedented flooding in the watersheds of the Kopuawhara and Maraetaha streams. The single men's quarters at No. 4 railway camp at Kopuawhara were swept away and 20 men and one woman were drowned. There were 19 survivors. At Boyd's camp, at the northern end of the line, the living quarters of seven married workers were carried away, and one life was lost. The Kopuawhara victims were: Jack Treacey (Wairoa), George H. Davis (Gisborne), Wm. Dunn (Christchurch), Robt. Johnson, Wm. Auld (Gisborne), Fred. I. C. Clark (Opotiki), Geo. Barbarich (Waipukurau), David Barclay (Auckland), Ed. McGivern, Hugh Sloan, Thos. Hall (Gisborne), Hira Waaka (Raupango), Fred. A. Fountain (Te Puke), R. E. Smith (Patutahi), John Kelleher (Wellington), F. W. Fry (Frankton), Martha Quinn (Gisborne), R. E. Halford (Woodville), Ivan Martinac and R. Douglas. At Boyd's camp the victim was Wm. Robinson (Gisborne).

A minor tornado on 26 November, 1892, blazed a path, a few chains wide, at Makauri towards W. King's sawmill. Some trees were uprooted and a shed was demolished. Some of the roofing iron landed nearly a mile away. D. Malone's shed was shifted across a road.

The earliest fall of snow on record in Poverty Bay occurred in the winter of 1860. W. L. Williams says that the snow lay thickly at page 370 Waerenga-a-Hika, and that it was a hitherto unknown experience. Light sprinklings occurred around Gisborne in July, 1873, and August, 1879. There was a heavy fall at Tokomaru Bay on 30 August, 1886, and another all along the East Coast on 15 August, 1887. A fall at Gisborne on 12 August, 1912, lasted only a few moments. On the morning of 29 July, 1939, there was a light fall in the town.

An extraordinary blowout occurred in May, 1930, at the cold mud springs in Waimata Valley. They had erupted on previous occasions, but not as extensively. Explosions of gas brought up sufficient mud to raise the height of an area of some acres by, in places, as much as from 10 feet to 15 feet. The gas produced a steady flame when ignited.