With polar blasts from the south, ex-tropical cyclones from the north and tornadoes from the west, New Zealand gets hit by destructive weather from most points of the compass.

Yesterday it was the turn of the North Island to be whipped by tornadoes and high winds. In Auckland, gusts reached around 120km/h, in line with the Met Service warnings, although at the exposed elevated Manukau Heads recording device the strongest gust was much higher, at 213km/h.

Despite the strength of yesterday's winds, as a weather event, the day is unlikely to rate as among the country's worst.

Here is a list of 10 of our worst:

Advertisement

• The Great Storm of 1936

• Nationwide snowstorm 1939

• Giselle 1968

• The Big Blow of 1975

• Bola 1988

• Fergus 1996

• Drena 1997

• Lower North Island floods 2004

• Winter Weather Bomb 2008

• Wilma 2011


The Great Storm of 1936

In the days before our ex-tropical cyclones bore human names, the Great Storm of February 1936 dumped heavy rain throughout the North Island and caused widespread damage.

Around six people died, including two lost at sea and one who drowned in Kaitaia when a house was washed away by flooding. A house was washed into the ocean too, by the storm surge at Te Kaha in the Bay of Plenty.

Roads and railways were washed out, windows were blown in, roofs were ripped off and thousands of trees fell, cutting power and telegraph lines around the North Island.

Erick Brenstrum, of the MetService, considers it to be "possibly New Zealand's most destructive storm in the last century".

"Disaster was only narrowly averted when the inter-island ferry Rangatira, heading for Wellington, steamed onto Red Rocks 10km from the harbour mouth in winds almost as bad as those that, 32 years later, would sink the Wahine."

Rangatira pulled itself off the rocks and limped into harbour in reverse, taking on water at the front.

The Rangatira ran aground on Wellington's south coast in the Great Storm of 1936. Photo / Ellesmere Guardian, Alexander Turnbull Library
The Rangatira ran aground on Wellington's south coast in the Great Storm of 1936. Photo / Ellesmere Guardian, Alexander Turnbull Library

Nationwide snowstorm, 1939

In the mid-winter of 1939, New Zealand experienced what the MetService says was the country's "most extensive snow storm of the 20th century".

Even a hill in one of the country's most northerly places, near Cape Maria van Diemen, was covered by "an appreciable depth of snow" for several hours, according to Herald archives.

Herald report, August 1, 1939, of snow in the north. Source: National Library
Herald report, August 1, 1939, of snow in the north. Source: National Library

In the south, the snow, which lasted a week, was described as the worst in 50 years.

On Dunedin's Mt Cargill (676m high) a snow drift was 5m deep. Roofs were damaged in the city. The storm's only fatality occurred when a man clearing snow from a skylight in a George St building fell 10m to the floor.

Passengers and crew on the Lumsden to Kingston train had to spend the night on the train after the locomotive ploughed into a 2m-deep snowdrift and got stuck.

More snow fell after a brief thaw and skiers headed for Oreti beach in Invercargill.

Herald picture, published July 26, 1939, of snow in Dunedin the previous day. Source: National Library
Herald picture, published July 26, 1939, of snow in Dunedin the previous day. Source: National Library

Giselle, 1968

Yesterday's storm blew in exactly 50 years after ex-tropical cyclone Giselle sank the inter-island ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour with the loss of 51 lives at the time and two more later.

Apart from the ship-related deaths, the storm also killed five people on land.

Giselle, which had formed near the Solomon Islands four days earlier, on April 6, 1968, produced New Zealand's strongest recorded wind gust, 269km/h, near an exposed ridge top on Wellington's west coast.

Wellington was hit hardest, but other areas were badly affected too. Roofs were blown off, windows were smashed and several houses were blown down by the wind. Torrential rain caused flooding in many parts of the North and South islands and thousands of farm animals drowned.

The Insurance Council says claims arising from the loss of the Wahine cost $173.6 million, in values inflation adjusted to 2017, and those from the storm cost $60.8 million.

The ferry Wahine sank in Wellington Harbour on April 10, 1968, having been badly damaged when thrown onto Barrett Reef by ex-tropical cyclone Giselle. Photo / Archive
The ferry Wahine sank in Wellington Harbour on April 10, 1968, having been badly damaged when thrown onto Barrett Reef by ex-tropical cyclone Giselle. Photo / Archive

The Big Blow of 1975

The nor'wester is the curse of Canterbury, but the blast on August 1, 1975 was far worse than most.

Weather Watch says severe gales lashed the east coast from Wairarapa to Southland. At Christchurch Airport the wind peaked at 172km/h.

Roofs were torn off buildings, several buildings were destroyed, power and telephone poles were blown down, and pine forests and crops were flattened.

Insurance claims cost $66.1 million in 2017-adjusted values.


Bola, 1988

Ex-tropical cyclone Bola formed in late February 1988. It slowed down as it moved over the east coast of the North Island in March.

For three days the storm poured out a torrent of rain from Hawkes Bay to East Cape. The worst affected area was the hill country near Gisborne.

In some places more than 900mm of rain fell in 72 hours and one place was inundated with more than half a metre of rain in a day.

Floods damaged houses, roads, railway lines and bridges. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.

The hill country was scarred by numerous landslides and farmers lost large sections of pasture and orchards.

Insurance claims cost $72 million, adjusted to 2017 values.

Tolaga Bay farmer Bruce Jefferd with dead sheep after ex-tropical cyclone Bola dumped heavy rain on the area in March 1988.
Tolaga Bay farmer Bruce Jefferd with dead sheep after ex-tropical cyclone Bola dumped heavy rain on the area in March 1988.

Fergus, 1996

Another ex-tropical cyclone that had brewed up in the Solomons, Fergus, looped around the Pacific before striking New Zealand in late December 1996.

It caused heavy rain, flooding, landslips, high winds and high seas from Northland to Gisborne. Northland and Coromandel were the worst affected areas and one person was killed, in Thames.

The insurance claims cost $2.4 million, adjusted to 2017 values.

Workers inspect the remains of the section of State Highway 1 on the Brynderwyn Hills that was closed after a slip following Cyclone Fergus in 1996. Photo / Glen Jeffrey
Workers inspect the remains of the section of State Highway 1 on the Brynderwyn Hills that was closed after a slip following Cyclone Fergus in 1996. Photo / Glen Jeffrey

Drena, 1997

Just two weeks after Fergus, ex-tropical cyclone Drena hit New Zealand, on January 10, 1997.

It brought high winds and high seas to the upper North Island, which caused damage to property, according to the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa).

Taranaki and Nelson had high seas, and there was flooding in Canterbury, Otago and Southland.

In Auckland, boats were damaged and cars were blown across lanes. More than 100 people were evacuated from their homes. Roads were closed and thousands were left without power.

Three people died, including a man hit by falling power lines and a couple who were swept away in a car.

The insurance claims cost $4.8 million, adjusted to 2017 values.

Huge seas pounded the Ports of Auckland container terminal during Cyclone Drena in 1997.
Huge seas pounded the Ports of Auckland container terminal during Cyclone Drena in 1997.

Lower North Island floods, 2004

A deep low moving slowly eastwards over the North Island brought high winds, heavy rain, flooding and landslips to much of the North Island and the upper South Island in February 2004. The storm affected the country for six days.

Niwa says the lower North Island was severely affected, with 100-year floods in Manawatu-Wanganui and 50-year floods in Wellington. Thousands of people were evacuated.

Three people died: two drowned in the sea at Wellington and one person was presumed drowned in the Marlborough Sounds.

The insurance claims cost $148.3 million, adjusted to 2017 values.

Winter Weather Bomb 2008

In one week in July-August 2008, the country, particularly the North Island, was thrashed by a succession of three big storms.

There were high seas, heavy rain, floods, landslips, power cuts, damage to trees and buildings and people were evacuated from their homes.

Seven people died - two fishermen whose boat was swept onto rocks east of Opotiki, a kayaker, a man whose house caught fire from a candle used during a power outage, and three who were involved in the collision of a car and van near Rangiriri.

The insurance claims cost $53.2 million, adjusted to 2017 values.

Wilma, 2011

Ex-tropical cyclone Wilma moved rapidly across the northeastern North Island on January 28 and 29, 2011.

It delivered heavy rain and caused severe flooding and landslips.

Temporary welfare shelters were set up in Northland to house about 70 people who were evacuated from their homes due to rising floodwaters.

The insurance claims cost $21.3 million, adjusted to 2017 values.

Ex-tropical cyclone Wilma in 2011 did this to Haruru Falls in Northland. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Ex-tropical cyclone Wilma in 2011 did this to Haruru Falls in Northland. Photo / Peter de Graaf