The Kopuawhara Flash Flood - 1938

Twenty-one people were killed in the Kopuawhara flood of 1938 Ė 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. These photographs show the camp before the flood and the day after the flood.

In 1938, workers building the Wairoa to Gisborne railway near M‚hia lived in huts and tents in public works camps along the banks of Kopuawhara 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.

It is thought that the main cause of the disaster was that a very large amount of earth from one of the tunnels had been tipped over the bank and when the heavy rain came it became saturated and slumped down into the river causing a dam, the flood waters built up behind this and then the whole lot roared down
the river valley swamping the camp.

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 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 catererís 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 further 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. In 1942 a memorial was set up to mark the site of the disaster.

Left: The Kopuawhara memorial - Set in a quiet rural area,
this memorial was built in 1942 to commemorate those who
were killed in the Kopuawhara flood. It is hard to visualise
the devastating power of the Kopuawhara Stream in full flood,
but the memorial serves as a reminder of the unpredictability
of New Zealandís rivers.