Remembering Cyclone Bola

Courage and bravery in a time of crisis.

Courage and bravery in a time of crisis.

Three people were forced to travel by rowboat after the Poverty Bay Flats were inundated by floodwaters from Bola. Gisborne Herald file pictures
Barbara Clarke sits in her flood-damaged home after Bola. The Clarke family wre able to save only a few possessions.
Aerial view of Tolaga Bay. File pictures
Flood flats.

Residents of Gisborne and the East Coast were left reeling after the devastation that Cyclone Bola unleashed in 1988, scarring some parts of the land forever. Wynsley Wrigley takes a look back at those events which took place 30 years ago.

Wednesday March 7 is the 30th anniversary of the day Cyclone Bola hit, and the start of three days of unrelenting rain.

The nadir came on that first day when three people drowned after their car was washed off the road at Mangatuna, north of Tolaga Bay.

A group of 22 surf lifesavers from all three city clubs worked through the first night of Bola.

They met at the police station with their flippers and rescue tubes.

“Before we were deployed, we were told three people had died at Mangatuna,’’ said one of the lifesavers.

“You could have heard a pin drop.’’

An estimated 5000 tonnes of rain fell on each hectare across the region during Bola.

Poverty Bay’s inland hill country was worst affected as winds forced warm, moist air up and over the hills augmenting the storm rainfall

Most areas received over 400mm of rain with the heaviest falls of 900mm recorded inland from Tolaga Bay.

Ruatoria had more than 900mm of rain in one day.

Winds up to 110km toppled trees and ripped off roofs.

Countless slips and landslides came down and millions of tons of alluvium (clay deposits) filled the rivers.

Evacuations

Three thousand people were evacuated when floodwaters rose and broke through the stopbanks of the Waipaoa River.

Residents of low-lying parts of Kaiteratahi, Waipaoa and Ormond, and city residents in Marian Drive, were told to leave their homes.

John Clarke, then chairman of Waikohu County Council, said Te Karaka would probably have been wiped out if not for recently completed stopbanks.

In the countryside, people were trapped on the roofs of homes, sheds and in one case a bus. An elderly Mangatuna woman spent the night of March 7 in her ceiling before a helicopter took her to a happy family reunion.

Thirteen helicopters were involved in rescue work.

School closures and loss of power and phone coverage was common.

Most of the East Coast was left without power.

Civil Defence advised the public to save water and to catch rainwater as large areas of the city had no water supply.

Residents agreed Bola was worse than the floods of 1948, 1977 and 1985.

State of emergency declared

Mayor Hink Healey declared a state of emergency at 4.27pm on March 7.

Then Gisborne Labour MP, the late Allan Wallbank, was one of many people who told the Gisborne Herald of his Bola experiences.

Mr Wallbank was marooned on his Ngatapa property. His car could not get any closer than six kilometres to his home because of floodwaters.

Ian Kirkpatrick picked him up in his four-wheel drive.

“Water was almost lapping into the cab when the four-wheel-drive could go no further,” said Mr Wallbank.

A worry for the MP was that his nephew was at home alone.

After getting another lift, Mr Wallbank risked his life to get to his nephew, wading through waist-high, swirling floodwaters and clinging to his fence line.

He finally got home at about 11pm, cold, wet and exhausted.

“My nephew was vey pleased to see me.”

Isolated district

The district was isolated as rail and road links were cut.

The Gisborne Herald reported that it took just three seconds for Bola to destroy the bridge over the Wairoa River.

Four spans of the then 55-year-old bridge collapsed at 6.25am.

“It was amazing how quickly it went,” said then Wairoa District Councillor Denys Cave.

“I ran to get ahead to get a photo, but it kept up with me.

“Before I could wind the film, the upstream side (of the bridge) rose in the air and the North Clyde end of the bridge broke away with a cracking and rumbling sound.

“It swung right around downstream towards the Wairoa side, upturned and ripped off.”

The following morning, army engineers were making their way to Gisborne via Wairoa’s railway bridge using offroad vehicles.

A total of 60 lifesavers worked through the three days of Bola.

The lifeguard operation resulted in Gisborne surf clubs receiving the New Zealand Rescue of the Year Award.

Devitts’ to the rescue

Former Tolaga Bay man Colin Devitt recounted to the Herald how he and his father Alan stopped more people drowning at Mangatuna.

“It is something you never forget,” he said.

The Devitt men ran Ranui Buses and were driving south to Tolaga Bay to pick up a bus that had been caught in a slip shortly before the worst of the cyclone had hit.

The water had started to rise but despite the increasingly bad weather, it had not yet burst its bank at that stage, said Mr Devitt.

“We actually picked up a few people already from where their cars had been caught in slips.”

On their way, they crossed paths with a Poverty Bay Power Board truck that was attempting to evacuate people from their homes.

The further they travelled, the worse the weather became.

“It was just continuous rain, when the water came down you could see it rising by the foot,” he said.

The Devitts’ eventually made it to the Tolaga Bay fire station when a call for help from the power board truck came in.

It had been carrying two power board workers, another man, and a pregnant woman, when it became stranded at Mangatuna. It was towing a car with four people in it, and both vehicles were becoming submerged.

The Devitts’ diesel TK Bedford four-wheel-drive bus was the only vehicle able to access the road, which had become a violent ocean in the time they were at the fire station.

“We went down the road and into the water . . . it had become so dark by then. We were so lucky there were power poles there,” said Colin Devitt.

“We could see the flickering of light on the metal strips on the power poles . . . it was the only way we could see where we were going.”

Colin Devitt drove for nearly a kilometre in the water in the ex-forestry gang bus “very similar to an army Unimog” to reach the power board truck.

“I manoeuvred beside the vehicle but I had to keep moving backwards and forwards because we had such a strong current trying to move us away.

“At that stage the water had come up to the dash and all the buzzers and lights on it were cutting off. I was actually sitting in it and to change gear I had to reach through the water.”

The motor, as was much of the vehicle, was completely immersed.

“I was driving knowing that I had to keep the motor going and I didn’t dare let it drop down below revs because I knew if it stopped, or cut out, I would not get it going again and we would all have had it.”

Alan Devitt began transferring the pregnant woman and others into the bus when one of the power board workers told him the people in the car had perished.

It was no longer visible under the water.

In an effort to rescue people from homes and schools, the power board workers had evacuated three elderly folk and a young boy of about 7 from their Mangatuna home.

They tied the car to the truck and began to tow it when the water became too much, killing the truck engine and sweeping the car to the side of the road and into a ditch.

“When it was in the ditch it was sort of bobbing up and down for a while,” said Colin Devitt.

“They were very distressed that they could not save them.”

“The young boy managed to get out through a window and went under water and just popped up in front of the power board bloke, who grabbed him by the scruff of his hair and pulled him in.”

Cyclone Bola claimed the lives of Rutu (Ruth) Maurirere, Nancy Carroll, and Harry Sutherland.

As Colin Devitt drove back to Tolaga Bay the water had risen to the level of the windscreen wipers on the bus.

“It was very frightening at the time. I would not want to go through it again,” he said.

The cost of Bola

When the floodwaters finally receded, silt a metre or more deep covered large areas of farmland and orchards across the district.

Farmers lost large tracts of grazing area, and thick sediment from the ebbing floods smothered pastures, orchards and crops.

Thousands of farm animals were killed.

So much horticultural produce was washed out to sea that fruit was still being dredged from the ocean floor in fishing nets several months later.

Bola resulted in a government repair bill of more than $111 million — the equivalent of more than $200m today.

There were invaluable lessons for Civil Defence.

In 1988 the district was run by six local authorities, Gisborne City Council, Waikohu, Cook and Waiapu County Councils, the East Cape Catchment Board and the Gisborne Harbour Board.

They did not have a centralised communication network nor were there any links to communities.

Because power and phone lines were down, Civil Defence wardens around Cook County had to share a radio network with county council field and roading staff, which simply did not work.

Communication networks were even more sporadic, with no ability to talk to various communities when the phones were out.

One of the first things the newly-formed Gisborne District Council of 1989 acquired was a proper VHF radio network connecting the entire civil defence network.

The Bola experience also highlighted the need for specific contingency plans for specific high hazard areas.

At Te Karaka, people had been evacuated to a marae which would have been the next to go under had the Waipaoa River risen another few inches or the newly completed stopbanks there had been breached.

The new plan would have them evacuated to Gisborne early in a major event, before water came over the road at Nisbets Dip.

At Mangatuna, under the new plan, people will be evacuated long before the Uawa River breaches its banks.

Soil conservation work, river control and land use planning was intoduced post-Bola.

The East Coast Forestry Project promoted large-scale commercial forestry and other sustainable land use changes in the Tairawhiti district.

Residents of Gisborne and the East Coast were left reeling after the devastation that Cyclone Bola unleashed in 1988, scarring some parts of the land forever. Wynsley Wrigley takes a look back at those events which took place 30 years ago.

Wednesday March 7 is the 30th anniversary of the day Cyclone Bola hit, and the start of three days of unrelenting rain.

The nadir came on that first day when three people drowned after their car was washed off the road at Mangatuna, north of Tolaga Bay.

A group of 22 surf lifesavers from all three city clubs worked through the first night of Bola.

They met at the police station with their flippers and rescue tubes.

“Before we were deployed, we were told three people had died at Mangatuna,’’ said one of the lifesavers.

“You could have heard a pin drop.’’

An estimated 5000 tonnes of rain fell on each hectare across the region during Bola.

Poverty Bay’s inland hill country was worst affected as winds forced warm, moist air up and over the hills augmenting the storm rainfall

Most areas received over 400mm of rain with the heaviest falls of 900mm recorded inland from Tolaga Bay.

Ruatoria had more than 900mm of rain in one day.

Winds up to 110km toppled trees and ripped off roofs.

Countless slips and landslides came down and millions of tons of alluvium (clay deposits) filled the rivers.

Evacuations

Three thousand people were evacuated when floodwaters rose and broke through the stopbanks of the Waipaoa River.

Residents of low-lying parts of Kaiteratahi, Waipaoa and Ormond, and city residents in Marian Drive, were told to leave their homes.

John Clarke, then chairman of Waikohu County Council, said Te Karaka would probably have been wiped out if not for recently completed stopbanks.

In the countryside, people were trapped on the roofs of homes, sheds and in one case a bus. An elderly Mangatuna woman spent the night of March 7 in her ceiling before a helicopter took her to a happy family reunion.

Thirteen helicopters were involved in rescue work.

School closures and loss of power and phone coverage was common.

Most of the East Coast was left without power.

Civil Defence advised the public to save water and to catch rainwater as large areas of the city had no water supply.

Residents agreed Bola was worse than the floods of 1948, 1977 and 1985.

State of emergency declared

Mayor Hink Healey declared a state of emergency at 4.27pm on March 7.

Then Gisborne Labour MP, the late Allan Wallbank, was one of many people who told the Gisborne Herald of his Bola experiences.

Mr Wallbank was marooned on his Ngatapa property. His car could not get any closer than six kilometres to his home because of floodwaters.

Ian Kirkpatrick picked him up in his four-wheel drive.

“Water was almost lapping into the cab when the four-wheel-drive could go no further,” said Mr Wallbank.

A worry for the MP was that his nephew was at home alone.

After getting another lift, Mr Wallbank risked his life to get to his nephew, wading through waist-high, swirling floodwaters and clinging to his fence line.

He finally got home at about 11pm, cold, wet and exhausted.

“My nephew was vey pleased to see me.”

Isolated district

The district was isolated as rail and road links were cut.

The Gisborne Herald reported that it took just three seconds for Bola to destroy the bridge over the Wairoa River.

Four spans of the then 55-year-old bridge collapsed at 6.25am.

“It was amazing how quickly it went,” said then Wairoa District Councillor Denys Cave.

“I ran to get ahead to get a photo, but it kept up with me.

“Before I could wind the film, the upstream side (of the bridge) rose in the air and the North Clyde end of the bridge broke away with a cracking and rumbling sound.

“It swung right around downstream towards the Wairoa side, upturned and ripped off.”

The following morning, army engineers were making their way to Gisborne via Wairoa’s railway bridge using offroad vehicles.

A total of 60 lifesavers worked through the three days of Bola.

The lifeguard operation resulted in Gisborne surf clubs receiving the New Zealand Rescue of the Year Award.

Devitts’ to the rescue

Former Tolaga Bay man Colin Devitt recounted to the Herald how he and his father Alan stopped more people drowning at Mangatuna.

“It is something you never forget,” he said.

The Devitt men ran Ranui Buses and were driving south to Tolaga Bay to pick up a bus that had been caught in a slip shortly before the worst of the cyclone had hit.

The water had started to rise but despite the increasingly bad weather, it had not yet burst its bank at that stage, said Mr Devitt.

“We actually picked up a few people already from where their cars had been caught in slips.”

On their way, they crossed paths with a Poverty Bay Power Board truck that was attempting to evacuate people from their homes.

The further they travelled, the worse the weather became.

“It was just continuous rain, when the water came down you could see it rising by the foot,” he said.

The Devitts’ eventually made it to the Tolaga Bay fire station when a call for help from the power board truck came in.

It had been carrying two power board workers, another man, and a pregnant woman, when it became stranded at Mangatuna. It was towing a car with four people in it, and both vehicles were becoming submerged.

The Devitts’ diesel TK Bedford four-wheel-drive bus was the only vehicle able to access the road, which had become a violent ocean in the time they were at the fire station.

“We went down the road and into the water . . . it had become so dark by then. We were so lucky there were power poles there,” said Colin Devitt.

“We could see the flickering of light on the metal strips on the power poles . . . it was the only way we could see where we were going.”

Colin Devitt drove for nearly a kilometre in the water in the ex-forestry gang bus “very similar to an army Unimog” to reach the power board truck.

“I manoeuvred beside the vehicle but I had to keep moving backwards and forwards because we had such a strong current trying to move us away.

“At that stage the water had come up to the dash and all the buzzers and lights on it were cutting off. I was actually sitting in it and to change gear I had to reach through the water.”

The motor, as was much of the vehicle, was completely immersed.

“I was driving knowing that I had to keep the motor going and I didn’t dare let it drop down below revs because I knew if it stopped, or cut out, I would not get it going again and we would all have had it.”

Alan Devitt began transferring the pregnant woman and others into the bus when one of the power board workers told him the people in the car had perished.

It was no longer visible under the water.

In an effort to rescue people from homes and schools, the power board workers had evacuated three elderly folk and a young boy of about 7 from their Mangatuna home.

They tied the car to the truck and began to tow it when the water became too much, killing the truck engine and sweeping the car to the side of the road and into a ditch.

“When it was in the ditch it was sort of bobbing up and down for a while,” said Colin Devitt.

“They were very distressed that they could not save them.”

“The young boy managed to get out through a window and went under water and just popped up in front of the power board bloke, who grabbed him by the scruff of his hair and pulled him in.”

Cyclone Bola claimed the lives of Rutu (Ruth) Maurirere, Nancy Carroll, and Harry Sutherland.

As Colin Devitt drove back to Tolaga Bay the water had risen to the level of the windscreen wipers on the bus.

“It was very frightening at the time. I would not want to go through it again,” he said.

The cost of Bola

When the floodwaters finally receded, silt a metre or more deep covered large areas of farmland and orchards across the district.

Farmers lost large tracts of grazing area, and thick sediment from the ebbing floods smothered pastures, orchards and crops.

Thousands of farm animals were killed.

So much horticultural produce was washed out to sea that fruit was still being dredged from the ocean floor in fishing nets several months later.

Bola resulted in a government repair bill of more than $111 million — the equivalent of more than $200m today.

There were invaluable lessons for Civil Defence.

In 1988 the district was run by six local authorities, Gisborne City Council, Waikohu, Cook and Waiapu County Councils, the East Cape Catchment Board and the Gisborne Harbour Board.

They did not have a centralised communication network nor were there any links to communities.

Because power and phone lines were down, Civil Defence wardens around Cook County had to share a radio network with county council field and roading staff, which simply did not work.

Communication networks were even more sporadic, with no ability to talk to various communities when the phones were out.

One of the first things the newly-formed Gisborne District Council of 1989 acquired was a proper VHF radio network connecting the entire civil defence network.

The Bola experience also highlighted the need for specific contingency plans for specific high hazard areas.

At Te Karaka, people had been evacuated to a marae which would have been the next to go under had the Waipaoa River risen another few inches or the newly completed stopbanks there had been breached.

The new plan would have them evacuated to Gisborne early in a major event, before water came over the road at Nisbets Dip.

At Mangatuna, under the new plan, people will be evacuated long before the Uawa River breaches its banks.

Soil conservation work, river control and land use planning was intoduced post-Bola.

The East Coast Forestry Project promoted large-scale commercial forestry and other sustainable land use changes in the Tairawhiti district.

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.

Adrianne Wilson, Auckland - 4 months ago
I remember sitting in my classroom at Ilminster Intermediate, watching the field just fill up with water before the principal organised for all the students who lived up the Coast to go home . . . then arriving home to Wainui to see our front yard awash.

Marion Fleming, Hamilton - 4 months ago
I remember it well. Lytton Road was under water and it was frightening for the elderly who lived in Lytton Court pensioner flats. I spent a lot of time checking on them and making sure they had all they needed. My brother-in-law worked for Vanman, a foodstuffs distributor, and when he could he drove the Coast road in his truck and gave the entire contents away - at his own expense - to those who were stuck in their homes and needed fresh supplies.

Jan Mossman, Tahawai - 4 months ago
Amazing - and thanks for the memory! I was there to visit my ailing mother and celebrate my birthday!

Gerald Bruce, Perth - 4 months ago
I lived down the end of Steed Ave when Bola hit. I remember the rain, it was hard and would not stop. I think the district got 900mm of rain in 24 hours and that would not surprise me. The nearby Taruheru River and the Hapara Stream just got bigger and bigger. My brother at one stage ferried out our chickens on his surfboard across the flooded tennis court to safety, and we penned and sheltered them in a safe place. We also walked down to the rickety old Campion Road footbridge in the torrential rain to see it holding up to the fast-moving floodwaters and building debris. It would have been madness to cross. It was a miracle that old wooden bridge held up and remained intact!

Steve Kettle, Australia - 4 months ago
Good story. I was on the west coast (Okato) getting my roof torn off in 220mph wind - scary at 12am with no power, lines sparking, roof iron flying past etc

Darryl Baser - 4 months ago
After growing up in Gisborne my whanau and I landed back from 18 months in the UK a week after the event. I remember going straight into clean-up work on kiwifruit and other orchards. The devastation was stunning. My thoughts from down here in Otepoti (Dunedin) are especially with those people who lost whanau members, and livelihoods in the tragedy. Kia kaha Turanganui-a-Kiwa.

JUSTIN EATON, Rotorua - 4 months ago
Yes . . . Cyclone Bola was very devastating for large swathes of the East Coast region! I remember it well . . . I was at GBHS at the time. We helped out the clean-up around orchards/farms etc, removing the silt which was caked over the land.

Tania Williams - 4 months ago
I remember it clearly . . . I was only eight at the time, my little sister who is now 30 was a baby. Dad was a farmer and we lived on a station off the three bridges, so right beside a river. The big extended family had to put our beds and blankets into the ceiling as the water was rising around us. What used to be paddocks was now a whole flowing river - it was scary as. They smashed a hole in the roof so we could be rescued by helicopter.
I had a story published and got McDonald's young writer of month for it.
The years have passed but we still remember it like it was only yesterday.

Marie Katting, Manurewa - 4 months ago
We lived in Davy Place in Kaiti at the back of Waikirikiri School. I remember we had to chase the water truck to get our fresh water.

Tom Barry - 1 month ago
I so remember this day, it's a heartbroken memory. The day before it happened my wife and I were working and it was windy; we both were saying "Aw, looks like it's going to rain love ay". Then the next day it started raining so heavy and the second day it got even worse! It was bloody shocking. It ruined my farm and our family house was flooded everywhere - we needed to get the hell out. I hate remembering this because sadly I lost my wife in this cyclone.

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