The fertile, alluvial soils of Hawke's Bay are due to the wandering Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri rivers, which by breaking their banks, spill over into the plains.

Early European settlers realised that flooding in the Bay would be a serious issue for their farms.

Henry Hill (1849-1933), educationist, Napier mayor (1917-1919) and a keen student of science, said in the late 1800s the rivers flowing over the plains were the bearers of nature's richest gifts and it was folly to send into the ocean the millions of tons of valuable soil brought down.

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"Settlers on the areas subject to floods should build their houses on stilts above flood level, plant trees to intercept the flood and let the floods raise the level of their land."

Not surprisingly, this idea did not find popular support. Livestock and farm implements, for instance, could not be raised on stilts.

Arguments about how to best deal with the ever-present menace of floods continued for decades amongst local bodies.

This year marks 80 years since torrential rain over two and a half days in Hawke's Bay's northern ranges wreaked havoc in April 1938.

Between 16 and 20 inches (40 to 51cm) of rain fell in this time in Esk Valley, North of Napier. This event became known as the Esk Valley flood, as that area was affected the most.

When Piet Van Asch, the founder of Aerial Mapping, took to the skies above Hawke's Bay, accompanied by a newspaper reporter from the Herald-Tribune, they observed two-thirds of the area between Eskdale and Paki Paki under water.

Scinde Island (Napier Hill), they reported, was "jutting out above the countryside … which was almost a continuous sheet of water".

France House, a children's home in Esk Valley, was isolated by the flood waters.


Police constables from Napier travelled with a boat on a truck to the main road to Taupo until they could travel no more.

They carried the boat for several miles on their shoulders around slips before launching it and arriving at France House to find the children safe.

However, many others were rescued throughout the Bay by boat.

Food was dropped by planes flying out of the Hastings aerodrome to isolated Esk Valley settlers.

Disaster struck when a Tiger Moth crashed while delivering food parcels to isolated farmers.

Both men in the plane survived but had serious injuries and it took 19 hours to get medical assistance to them.

Many houses, such as Mrs R Tait's house in Esk Valley, had 10 feet (three metres) of silt around them.

Volunteers later dug out all the silt so she could remove her furniture and personal effects.

Almost the whole of Esk Valley was covered in about a metre to three metres of silt.

After the flood water had subsided, the Esk Valley area was described as "a sea of silt and wreckage", with many houses like Mrs Tait's covered in silt up to the eaves.

Farmers would have to start again on the surface of the silt by sowing grass seed, restoring fences and buildings – and recover from stock losses.

Clive was covered in the floodwaters when the Ngaruroro overflowed its banks, with many houses flooded.

At Paki Paki, local Maori dressed "in bathing costumes of various hues" acted as guides to motorists who attempted to "give it a go" to cross through flood waters on the Hastings side of the partially blocked main road south.

Napier became isolated when the last available entry point – the Waitangi Bridge over the Tutaekuri River - sank in the middle after its centre piles were washed away by the flood waters.

William Lee, a Napier pensioner, was pinned to his bed by a falling beam when a slip crashed into his house on Northe St. He suffered fractured ribs.

Although isolated, Napier had surface water, but no major flooding.

About 54 bridges in Hawke's Bay had to be replaced after the flood.

Stock losses were high, and farmers did their best to remove their animals to higher ground. Losses per farm were estimated to 500 to 1000 sheep.

The beaches were littered with carcasses of sheep, chicken, cattle and goats, much to the delight of the gulls and other scavengers.

To assist the farmers of Esk Valley, the Government made a weekly payment to them of £4 (2018: $408) and to each of their sons 16 shillings ($82) to bring their farms back into production.

The Government also gave money to restore fencing on farms.

Grass seed sown in May was doing well in some areas, despite the conditions not being ideal for growth in late autumn.

In September, a government minister visited the Esk Valley area and described being "very distressed" at what he saw.

A glimmer of hope regarding restoration of Esk Valley for farming came at the end of 1938, when grass sown on May 19 on a 10-acre (4-hectare) block over silt was progressing well. Recovery, however, would be a long process.

• Michael Fowler ( is a freelance writer and speaker of Hawke's Bay's history.