Sunday Insight: When Bola bore down on Gisborne

By Sheridan Gundry

Ivan Maurirere. Photo / John Cowpland
Ivan Maurirere. Photo / John Cowpland

Ivan Maurirere remembers being submerged in water in the back seat of his uncle's car; his 91-year-old grandmother's last words promising everything would be all right. And he remembers his escape through a window into a raging torrent and the welcome arms of a power board lineman.

Now 33 and living in Hastings, Maurirere was 8 when floodwaters swept the Vauxhall into a deep drain at Mangatuna, north of Tolaga Bay.

Twenty five years ago on March 7, 1988, Cyclone Bola terrorised the region with three days of relentless rain. The event captured media attention and established a new district benchmark. A state of emergency was in force for 18 days.

Some remember the smell of mud, the stench of rotting, burning animals and the sickening sight of devastated crops and slipping hillsides. Others recall the unbelievable speed of rising water, being trapped in ceilings and on roofs, the sound of helicopters.

Ivan and his uncle, Bob Bartlett, survived when Bartlett's car was swept into the water. But three passengers died: Ivan's grandmother RuthMaurirere, 91, and neighbours Nancy Carroll, 63, and husband Harry Sutherland, 67. Neither the submerged car nor its drowned occupants could be recovered for days.

Ivan, who lived with his grandmother, recalls two linemen attaching a towrope to the car. "The truck conked out on the Mangatuna straight and our car was washed off into a deep drain."

He thinks he floated out the window after kicking it a fewtimes and, as he surfaced, was grabbed by a lineman. Bob Bartlett was washed down the road to emerge badly shaken. A new whangai family helped Ivan overcome nightmares and a fear of water.

Bus service owner Colin Devitt, now of Whakatane, drove to their aid in his 4WD diesel, ex-forestry bus. "Rather stupidly, my father and I went into the water in the dark for about two kilometres, guided by the headlights shining on power poles' metal guards. The water was way up over the fences and rising.

"We got everyone on board and turned around. Ihadwateruptomy chest. I was dead scared to let the revs die. The truck was having a fit with warning bells sounding. The front wiper blades were dipping in and out of the water. It was pretty frightening.

"We could see people on a roof near the marae beckoning us. We knew there was a big drain there and we had to drive straight past. That was very unsettling. They were later airlifted out.

"It was hair-raising. Sheds and houses were floating, the Maurirere house totally destroyed. The whole experience burned itself into your brain."

Most areas in the district received more than 400mm of rain. The heaviest falls of 900mm were inland from Tolaga Bay. Winds of up to 100kman hour toppled trees, tore off roofs.

Three thousand people, including nearly 500 at Te Karaka, were evacuated. Gutsy helicopter pilots and life saving crews effected heroic rescues.

Stock losses reached thousands; 3500ha of farmlandwas inundated; 25,000 tonnes of horticultural produce ruined. Hundreds of volunteers later helped clear away silt and pick crops.

Transport links were severed to and with in the region. The Waipaoa Railway bridge was undermined, 100m of track left hanging in midair. Power supplies, and sewerage and water systems, were crippled for weeks. Gisborne lost its water supply when slips wiped out the pipeline from Waingake. Thousands of tonnes of once-productive soil washed out to sea.

A slip north of Tolaga Bay shut off the East Coast for days. Another at Waerenga-o-kuri wiped outpart of the highway, blocked the stream and created a broad lake. A disgorging gully broke the back of Tokomaru Bay's historic Te Puka Hotel and almost took the life of toddler Shane Chaffey. His parents grabbed him before bedroom walls collapsed over his cot.

The government's $111m relief package, including a $50m farm assistance fund and $34.3m in road repairs, helped reconstruct a wounded economy. The city's water supply was rebuilt but it was all over for Gisborne's passenger train service and its bottled milk plant.

Fertile flats including those at Mangatuna were devastated. Tolaga Bay farmer Bruce Jefferd lost 2000 sheep, two thirds of his flock - stuck in fences or drowned in up to 2m of water, weighed down by wool. Cattle swam to higher ground.

"We'd had medium - scale events before but nothing like Bola for the sheer volume of water. In three days, some places had the equivalent of Wellington's annual rainfall."

Late that Monday night, a nauseated and nervous Bruce, his wife Nicki and two visitors left on a 4WD tractor and trailer for a neighbour's.

"In the morning, most of us were in shock at the scale of it. You could have rowed a dinghy from one side of the Tolaga Bay flats to the other. But like any major event, the shock settled and we got to work. Volunteers helped relieve the stress."

Holes chainsawed into the floor of their Lockwood house helped channel out mud and silt from a half metre of floodwaters. For days they retrieved dead sheep, the task becoming more unpleasant as a hot autumn accelerated decomposition. Tyres helped burn piles of carcasses. But wool's fire retardant properties thwarted efforts and a terrible smell pervaded the flats for days.

The flood had an upside. Good quality silt deposits, up to a metre in places, helped lift the soil's pH to a levelonly years of liming could have achieved. Within two months, with extra phosphate and nitrogen, good results were achieved.

The Tolaga Bay flats remain one of New Zealand's few large areas of flat, flood-prone land with no floodbank protection. A scheme drawn up after flooding in 2005 never went ahead.

Jefferd says they can live with damage from medium-size events but not another Bola. "We've learned the area can handle between 250 and 300mm of rain but if we have more than 300mm and there's more to come, we know we'll be in trouble."

Bola proved the ultimate test for the Waipaoa River Flood Control Scheme protecting Gisborne and its productive plains. Completed in 1973, the scheme's 65km stop bank system held against unprecedented pressure.

Most were unaware that, to save the city from flooding, a load of gelignite was in the back of a ute ready to blow a hole in a bank if needed.

The scheme is robust today, with various improvements made, but some say it might not quite contain another flood of the same discharge as Bola. Vulnerable sections are being investigated.

Bola's first evening of heavy rain found farmer and Waikohu County chairman John Clarke fulfilling his civil defence controller duties at Te Karaka, a township saved by a near-complete stopbank system. His wife Barbara was calmly raising possessions as she prepared to shift out with four children, aged 3 to 10. She was blissfully unaware water surrounded her home of 14 years and driving out was not an option. The fire service moved them to a neighbour's.

Floodwaters reached the house windows and almost submerged the car. Afterwards, most of their farm and vineyard lay under a thick coating of silt, the grapes thankfully picked the week before.

She didn't see her house until Wednesday, her husband until Thursday by which time time, with the help of volunteers, the house had been completely cleared and hosed out.

"There was a lot of humour because what else can you do? People saw you at your rawest state. We didn't save a lot. Bedding and appliances were stuffed. We washed clothes but they were never the same."

Water lapped the keyboard of their heirloom piano but photo albums were safe on top. Perfect piano pitch remained elusive despite months of repair effort. "New replacement" insurance enabled quick decisions, and within 15 months the Clarkes were in a new house on the hill.

Many turned their back on the district, having already fallen victim to drought, high interest rates and low returns, and the 1987 stockmarket crash.

"The event made farmers' decisions for them," John Clarke says. "Some blocks went down the gurgler. On the flats, a lot more attention was given to floodable areas and making sured wellings were off the ground."

The family faced more trauma in an earthquake in 1993, by which time Clarke was four years into his 12-year reign as mayor of the new Gisborne district. "What we didn't lose in Bola, we lost then."

On the East Coast, gouged hillsides were Bola's calling card. Half the area suffered severe to extreme erosion. Some said the government of the late 1970s had in effect subsidised erosion through the Supplementary Minimum Prices and Rural Land Development Encouragement Loan schemes.

Under these, scrub and light bush were cleared off marginal steep-lands often against catchment board advice.

Today, hill-country tree cover is much improved with extensive plantings of pine but also poplars and willows. Gisborne District Council environmental services manager Trevor Freeman says while indigenous re-growth has been significant, more vulnerable areas still need planting.

"In 1988, large-scale plantation forest harvesting had not begun. Recent storm events have shown the vulnerability of newly clearfelled or replanted forest areas. With today's mature industry, a proportion of forest area is at risk at any one time. Council is working
with industry to reduce that risk and downstream effects such as woody debris deposits.

Gisborne District Council emergency manager Richard Steele says if someone were to die in flooding today, it would more likely be through people not following authorities' instructions.

"Community structures now manage the response for their communities.

"We support communities and provide back-up for what they can't manage. Bola signalled that if you can't talk to people in the areas affected, you cannot support or respond to their needs."

No special commemorations of Bola are planned this week. Rather, John Clarke says, it's a time for reflection.

- Herald on Sunday

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