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Cyclone Bola

Tropical Cyclone Bola (March 1988) was one of the most destructive storms ever to strike New Zealand, bringing the heaviest rain in living memory to the North Island of New Zealand.

Chapter 1   Inundation & Devastation  -  Introduction and background information regarding Cyclone Bola throughout New Zealand.

Chapter 2   Disintegration & Destruction  -  The collapse of the Wairoa Bridge and all Service Utilities.

Chapter 3   Survival & Tragedy  -  The conditions and heartbreak in the first week after Cyclone Bola.

Chapter 4   Isolation & Transitional  -  Initial response to Wairoa's total isolation from the outside world.

Chapter 5   Provisional & Interim  -  Alternative transport routes provided to access both Wairoa north and south.

Chapter 6   Restoration & Construction  -  The planning and contruction of the new High Level Wairoa Bridge.

Chapter 7   Unification & Celebration  -  The Opening of the new Wairoa Bridge and the unity of the Wairoa township.

Chapter 8   Memories & Recollections  -  Personal stories and recollections contributed by our Readers.

Chapter 1 - Inundation and Devastation

Over the years we have had numerous requests concerning information, photos and what it was like living through Cyclone Bola. We have finally put together a Summary of Events regarding the damage, destruction, disruption and the restoration that occurred in Wairoa, Hawkes Bay that we hope you will find interesting. We also hope when the Wairoa people read this page it will bring back memories they will be willing to share and especially old photos they may have tucked away. We have posted contact links at the bottom of page 7 for anyone who can help build on what we have so far. We would like your stories and memories from during those Bola months and plan to add pages from your contributions. So cast your mind back and tell us how Cyclone Bola affected you in March 1988.

These pages only cover the Wairoa area in brief and is as factual as the people contributing can remember. If any information is incorrect please contact us with corrections. All input is welcome.

All the Cyclone Bola Photos below were taken in Wairoa Northern Hawkes Bay by local Wairoa Photographers. The Black and White shot half way down was taken from a local district newspaper. All photos are the property of Wairoa.net and are not for distribution.

Finally thank you to all those that have allowed us the use of your photographs. Photos illustrate far more detail than words ever could.

Wairoa Bridge

These two photos have been all I can find so far of the old bridge. If anyone has some photos of the old Wairoa Bridge, that was built in 1933, we would welcome the use of them

The above ↑ was taken at a Motorcycle Rally pre 1988 and the below ↓ is the Staff of the ANZ Bank taken in either 1978 or 1979.

The above shows the Southern end of the old Wairoa Bridge and the below the Northern end of the bridge.

Wairoa ANZ Staff

Satellite Image Cyclone Bola

Tropical Cyclone Bola was one of the costliest cyclones in the history of New Zealand, causing severe damage as an extra tropical cyclone when it passed near the country in March 1988.

Two deaths were attributed to Cyclone Bola in Gisborne and 4 deaths indirectly in Wairoa with 1 subsequent death.

It formed on February 24 to the north of Fiji, and tracking generally southwestward it reached hurricane-force winds near Vanuatu on February 28. The next day it generated peak wind velocities of 195 km/h (120 mph), though it quickly weakened as it accelerated southward. On March 4 Bola transitioned into an extra tropical storm, passing to the north of the North Island of New Zealand on March 8. It weakened further and was absorbed by a stationary trough near the South Island on March 12. [1]

The heaviest rainfall totals were recorded in the Gisborne and northern Hawkes Bay regions. Te Puia Springs weather station recorded the highest of 419 mm (16.5 in) in a 24 hour period on the 8th of March. The maximum rainfall total over those days attributed to the storm was 917 mm, reported at a station near Tologa Bay.

The Table below clearly lays out the daily Rainfall Data during the days of Cyclone Bola in 1988 on the East Coast of the North Island

Those daily rain totals are almost unbelievable and certainly explain why these regions suffered such extreme flooding.

RegionMarch 6thMarch 7thMarch 8thMarch 9thMarch 10th
Opotiki    5.1102.2295.5121.5    2.0
Waioeka Gorge    0.0    8.0    4.0    2.0    9.0
Wairata, Matawai    0.5  10.7  68.0  23.1  25.0
Ruatoria    8.8149.1384.8  57.7    7.2
Te Puia Springs    7.1174.8419.4  64.5  37.0
Tokomaru Bay    8.0143.0103.0  69.0  49.0
Tologa Bay  10.2149.8160.0250.0  10.0
Te Karaka, Gisborne    6.7  64.4 297.5    0.0
Gisborne Airport    5.8  63.5156.1  70.0    4.0
Manutuke, Gisborne    4.6  73.6193.3  57.8    1.9
Eastwood Hill, Gisborne    5.6  77.9194.4107.5    2.0
Waingake, Wharerata  35.0  98.8255.0217.1 
Clonkeen, Morere    0.0    4.0  66.0190.0  91.0
Pongaroa, Mahia    0.0    0.0190.6  24.7    0.0
Tuhara Valley, Iwitea    0.0  37.5113.0  65.0  27.0
Onepoto, Waikaremoana    6.2121.0191.1191.1  15.0
Aniwaniwa, Waikaremoana    6.0103.2286.0382.4  25.0
Kairoa, Pehiri    3.0  46.0131.8158.0  21.8
Tuai    6.2120.2202.0169.0  40.0
Erepeti, Ruakituri    5.6  69.5114.8135.5  15.4
Pihanga, Ruakituri    4.0  29.3  80.6  51.9    8.5
Mangatawhiti, Ohuka    0.0  60.4166.4100.0  14.4
Maungataniwha, Putere    0.0  70.4135.6164.0  35.0
Marumaru    0.0    0.0  47.7  89.2  67.3
Clydebank, Frasertown    0.0  34.8171.0  45.4    1.3
Frasertown, Wairoa    0.8  39.0118.1  61.2    1.0
Wairoa Hospital  23.3  32.2  91.3  33.5    1.7
Waihua Valley  11.2  68.0141.0  54.0    4.4
Cricklewood, Wairoa  34.5  50.6163.6  58.0    1.4
Putorino    7.3  76.0302.3183.9    8.4
Tutira    4.4  81.5319.3328.6  24.1
Tareha, Tutira    0.0192.5201.7223.0188.0
Ripia, Tahuwera    0.0  24.9112.6  93.0  17.9
Te Pohue, Tahuwera    0.0  49.1190.2245.7  49.0
Whakarua, Whirinaki    0.0  29.6  20.3  59.3  13.5
Eskdale, Napier    0.0  59.9133.3105.7    6.8
Napier City    0.2  38.5  58.5  32.2    1.8
Flag Range, Napier    0.1  32.0111.1139.4  19.9
Hastings Airport    1.2  24.0  34.0  35.3    0.0

Heavy rainfall totals of up to and over 300 mm were also observed in the regions of Auckland and Northland. The cyclone was the largest to be recorded in 93 years of rainfall records.

A comprehensive diagnostic study of the extra tropical precipitation can be read here: Tropical Cyclone Bola written by Mark R. Sinclair.

The downpours triggered innumerable landslides on the region's hillside pastures. Some farmers lost 30% of their grazing area, with landslide scars taking decades to heal. Thick sediment from the ebbing floods smothered pastures, orchards, and crops ready for harvest. It also had a large and lasting effect on the rivers of the area when it deposited a large amount of sediment, as recorded in the sedimentary record of Lake Tutira, south of Wairoa. One 11,000-hectare catchment deposited a million tonnes of sediment into the Waipaoa River.

Wairoa Lighthouse

Storm damage was heaviest in Gisborne, Tologa Bay and Wairoa, where rain destroyed or damaged several roads and bridges. Three days of continuous rainfall led to landslides, mudslides, flooding, and erosion. Flooding killed three people when their car was swept away. In Te Karaka, Gisborne, a flooded river forced 500 residents to evacuate. A total of 1,765 farmers were affected by the flooding, accounting for about 3,600 hectares (8,900 acres) of damaged crop fields and about $90 million in crop damage. [1]

Flooding from Cyclone Bola had a devastating effect on horticulture in the East Coast region. The damaged crops included 3,000 tonnes of grapes, 1,300 tonnes of squash, 7,000 tonnes of sweet corn, 13,500 tonnes of tomatoes, and several million dollars in vegetables for the local market. Large amounts of horticultural produce were swept into the sea and fishing boats dredged fruit from the sea floor in their nets for several months after the storm. [2]

The Wairoa River 'long river' runs south for 65 kilometres from the inland east coast and is the drainage basin for an extremely large area which includes Lake Waikaremoana, as shown in the map below. The catchment area is around 3,660 km (1,415 square miles), almost all of it soft Tertiary rocks, and much of it rugged and forested. Lake Waikaremoana is formed in the rock fall-dammed headwaters of a tributary, the Waikaretaheke, which has a confluence with the Waiau River 14 miles from the coast. The combined catchment of these two is 545 sq. miles. Two large tributaries drain from the north, the Ruakituri River, from Maungapohatu (4,482 ft) and the Hangaroa River with its headwaters only 15 miles west of Gisborne. The shape of the catchment is that of a nearly regular triangle with its apex on the coast of Hawkes Bay. Much of the catchment of the Wairoa is very little known and is probably the most difficult country in the North Island. [2]

Wairoa Catchment

As the waters flow down from the higher catchment area, as shown in the map below, the speed of the current picks up momentum sweeping everything within its path along the swollen rivers into the basin funnel - The Wairoa River.

Cyclone Bola passed through the Wairoa township, peaking on the 6th and the 7th of March 1988, severely flooding many areas, lifting roofs off buildings and uprooting many trees. Both the main State Highway and the rail lines north and south were closed in several places due to slips and water flooding. The Wairoa River could not cope with the deluge of water flowing down from the catchment area and the water flowed over her banks across fields, roads, rail lines and through buildings and homes. Evacuation of many people was done by horse and helicopters. In the Wairoa Township the water level rose up as high as the curbing along the side of Marine Parade.

Wairoa River

The cyclone first affected Fiji, where it produced gale force winds and strong waves. In Vanuatu, Bola dropped heavy rainfall, which destroyed two bridges and caused $5 million in damage. Bola caused severe damage to the North Island of New Zealand, where heavy rainfall peaked at 917 mm (36.1 in) in Gisborne Region in 3 days. Damage was estimated to have totaled over $82 million. Three people were killed near Gisborne and hundreds were evacuated due to the flooding from the heavy rain. Many living along the river front were also evacuated when the swollen Wairoa river threatened Wairoa properties.

Wairoa River

Cyclone Bola created some of the heaviest rainfall totals for a single storm in the history of New Zealand, with some locations receiving more than half of their annual rainfall totals from the storm. The torrential rain fell continuously for three days with vengeance.

Wairoa Bridge

The Photo above was taken on the 9th of March looking across paddocks towards Waihere Road.

The forcus of this article as stated above is the Wairoa Township. An area that did not break any precipitation records and yet suffered by far during and after than anywhere else in New Zealand, as regard to day to day living. It took 21 months for life to return to as it had been.

A Hictoric Summary covering the rest of New Zealand during Cyclone Bola may be found at the NZ Weather Forum. Our thanks to Rupert Wood for such a comprehensive report.

At 3.20am on Tuesday the 8th of March a Civil Emergency was declared in Wairoa and the fire siren sounded across the township. Heavier rain had started falling on Sunday night and had continued throughout Monday. The countryside already sodden started flooding with no where for the water to go. In the early hours of Tuesday morning warnings were issued that the Wairoa Bridge was under threat.


1.    Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

2.    Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

3.    The Wairoa Star.

4.    The New Zealand Herald.

5.    Television New Zealand Archives.

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