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Cyclone Bola

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 3 - Survival and Tragedy

There was no water supply or sewage service to the south and no telephone service to the north. There was no fresh food products as with milk and bread, no publications as with Newspapers as there was no access by road or rail in or out of the Wairoa Township that morning. Many were stranded on the opposite side to where they lived or caught in flooded areas.

Things would never return to completely normal, they never do after a disaster or emergency.
But there would be order, Wairoa would repair the damage and move progressively on into the future.

Wairoa Bridge

The photos above and below were both taken from the same place but 22 years apart. This is to compare the height of the water level as it was on the 8th of March 1988 with the photo below taken 15th August 2010. The flooding actually came up much higher as you will see in photos further on in this article.

Wairoa Bridge

Wairoa Bridge

The photo above and below show the break in the bridge from the north side. You can see in the above photo to the left and right of the bridge, the broken cables being swept downwards with the strong water current. These snapped cables were part of the power and phone cables servicing the southern Wairoa Township. The photo below was taken days later when the tide had receded. The broken pipes are more visible on both sides of the bridge.

Wairoa Bridge

As night turned to day on that fateful morning, the devastating news that the Wairoa Bridge had been torn apart spread through Wairoa rapidly. All the voluntary Emergency Service sprang into action with hundreds of people rallying around offering support. There was very little for anyone to do at this stage as the waters were high and flowing extremely fast with massive flooding throughout the district.

Help was requested from neighbouring cities, supplies and relief workers needed to be moved across the river. Tuesday morning was a waiting game, a time for planning by the local authorities and by the heads of all utilities as Bola had left nothing 100% in working order.

Helicopters were sent in to transport supplies and to help with the evacuation of many. A helicopter was flown in immediately on the 8th and made a base at the Wairoa Hospital. All day and night it flew backwards and forwards carrying not only people but supplies, equipement and machinery. Once it became apparent this means of transport was going to be on going the helicopter base was moved to a vacant section opposite The War Memorial Hall where Kea Hire is situated today. The moving of the heli pad base meant it was closer to the Wairoa District Council and the Civil Defence Operations Centre.
The Wairoa SPCA was provided with a Helicopter from Auckland Head Office to help deal with any animal rescues. For the next few days there was constant activity in the air as this was the only access from one side to the other until the flooding subsided and roads could be cleared.

Wairoa Bridge

Many locals headed straight down to the two supermarkets to stock up with what they could. Pre-cooked canned food, meat, fruit and vegetables were purchased by the trolley load. Candles were sold out within hours on the first morning along with batteries. The milk and bread from the day before (7th March) was sold out by 8.00am and milk powder an hour later, as the locals realised the implications of the bridge being washed away.

All early morning deliveries that usually came through from Gisborne and Napier had been turned back. The Gisborne, Napier and Awamate Roads were closed with no detours possible. All transport had been stopped from crossing the bridge by the Wairoa Police, Civil Defence, Civil Engineers and the Wairoa Fire Brigade once it became apparent that the Wairoa Bridge may collapse.

The Wairoa Bridge had been monitored closely during Monday night as it had become clear the deluge of water, branches and debris may just be too much for the piles to cope with. The Piles were slowly rocking, fighting the pressure of the swift current and the crashing of large branches against their sides. The Wairoa community can be grateful our emergency services stepped in although to the annoyance of the Wairoa motorists, as lives could well have been lost if anyone had of been caught on the bridge at the time of its collapse.

Wairoa Bridge

The collapse in turn broke the main water pipes, the sewage pipes, the telephone lines and one of the main power feeders to the town and rural areas and caused massive disruption for days to follow.

In 1988 Wairoa was under two Power Authorities, the Wairoa Borough Council and the Wairoa Electric Power Board. Our Power source was the Tuai Power Station and our electricity was fed down through Frasertown substation to Wairoa. There was two feeds across the Wairoa River. The Wairoa Borough East which ran along the side of the bridge and Wairoa Borough West which ran over the Wairoa River opposite the Skate Bowl.

When it was apparent the bridge was not going to survive the Wairoa Borough East power was turned off at the Frasertown substation. This only effected a few and power was resumed next morning when temporary cables were run off the Wairoa Borough West power supply.

Meanwhile from Frasertown to the Lake the residents were not so fortunate with trees blown over and snapping their power lines. The Wairoa Electric Power Board worked day and night aided by helicopter to restore power to this area. This area was without power for several days.

Cyclone Bola

The Wairoa Arts Centre, shown above, is the building on the right. On the right of the Arts Centre was the Wairoa Borough East Electricity substation. The Wairoa Fire Brigade stacked sand bags around this trying to keep the water from seeping in plus pumped the water away when the tide became too close.
Sandbags were also stacked in front of the Marine Parade West businesses in the vicinity of the bridge approach to help prevent those businesses from being flooded.

The south side knew the small water tanks holding the township water would empty quickly. The hot water was turned off. Wairoa was placed on strict water restrictions. Rain water was collected in buckets, bowls, ice cream container and used sparely.
The locals were told that in an emergency like this they just had to take a deep breath and think about what they were doing before they did it. They were advised to draw only what they desparately needed.

The town water supply after being purified at the Frasertown Water Treatment Plant pipes down to water holding tanks at the north end of Carroll Street, which supply North Clyde, and then across the bridge, across town and up to the top of Tawhara Hill into the town holding tanks. The flow back down creates the water pressure servicing the south side of Wairoa. When the pipes along side the bridge broke the south side lost its water supply.

Wairoa South was placed on rigid water restrictions as these tanks only held enough water for around three days. The south side adhered to the water restrictions and those tanks lasted a week. To preserve water, the hot water was turned off for the whole of the south side for 5 days. Locals were advised by word of mouth and the local radio not to use water unless absolutely necessary. Thoughout the day the radio would run tips on how to conserve water such as flushing the toilet once a day and to use the water from swimming pools, spas, the washing machine etc. After 5 days the hot water was reinstated as it was decided this was not saving water as the Wairoa residents were continually turning on the hot water to check as to whether is was back on or not. That 5 days without hot water meant boiling kettles, pots of water, etc for basic washing needs. After 5 days of cold water, a hot shower was welcomed by all.

Wairoa Bridge

The Telephone lines came from the South with the Exchange also on the south side. The Telephone access was not cut on the South but the North was not so lucky with many areas without a telephone service for many days. When the water level dropped a temporary line was linked across to the south and a temporary exchange was set up in the old Service Department of the Dairy company on the corner of Carroll Street and Mahia Avenue. Six telephones were hung on the wall which looked like something out of a 1920's movie. From there residents of the North side could ring across to friends and family on the South side.

The south side provided the sewage service for the north side. This was piped along side the bridge, across to the south, across town and out to sea. When the bridge went down this pipe also broke and the sewage from the north side poured into the river and swiftly down stream through the river mouth and out to sea. Once the river level began to drop in the following days, the flow was controlled by shutting off the valves when the tide came in and opening them again with the outgoing tide. Eventually a temporary pipe was mounted across the river to link back up with the north side system.

Wairoa Bridge

Man power was increased in Wairoa from outside sources. Extra Police workers were transported in, our local Volunteer Fire Brigade helpers increased likewise our Ambulance Service. The New Zealand Army had been in transit from Napier to Gisborne when the flooding increased and the bridge collapsed. When the town was declared a Civil Emergency area their orders were changed and they were posted here. More army trucks were sent through with supplies and the Army used the railway lines to reach Wairoa and the stranded Wairoa people. The New Zealand Army remained in Wairoa for many weeks following and their help and support was invaluable.

The Wairoa Police also used the railway bridge to transport supplies by trawler from one side to the other. This was extremely dangerous as the bridge was narrow and very slippery from the rain.

The main priority was to restore the service utilities mainly the restoration of the water supply to the south side. The first hose was set up by the Gisborne Fire Brigade from North Clyde to the town side. This was done by being airlifted by helicopter across the gap in the bridge. Alas when the water was turned on and began to flow through the hose, it sank into the Wairoa River. With the swift flow of the river, the hose was very unstable being submerged under water and could not be relied upon. The water was once again turned off and this first hose removed.
To accomplish this a volunteer fireman from the Wairoa Brigade accompanied a local man, in a rubber dinghy under power, into the river. They had to release the water in the hose before it could be pulled up from the river. This was done by disconnecting some couplings. This was a very dangerous job as the river was in full flood.

Another idea was then tried. A wire rope connected to a bulldozer was strung across the gap and anchored on the town side of the river. Fire Brigade hoses were attached to this wire. Every 18 inches the hose had to be tied to the wire rope to prevent sagging into the river as it did before when filled with water.
This was done by standing on the bridge and the hose fed across the gap as it was tied. This was very labour intensive and used a lot of rope. When this hose was filled with water it did not sag into the river. The end of the hose was coupled to a stand pipe outside Paul Street Dairy. The North Clyde end was connected to the mains. Wairoa then had a temporary supply of water.

The Wairoa Fire Brigade and many volunteers worked around the clock to hang this temporary water hose from the broken north and south ends of the bridge. The Wairoa River was in full flood and the weather dreadful. The work was slow going and exhausting. The Wairoa Fire Brigade were the heros of the hour. Here we think it is appropriate to add that the Wairoa men who make up the Wairoa Fire Brigade were all volunteers and still are to this day. They do a marvellous job looking after the Wairoa township and out lying areas and this sure was proven during Bola of 88.

Wairoa Bridge

Although the above hose was adequate at the time, it was apparent a larger, more secure water pipe would be needed. The Works Consultancy Services designed a suspension pipebridge over the next few days using strainers and an A-frame. This would carry the water, sewer mains, power and phone lines across the river. The A-frame was so large that it was cut into 6 metre lengths and placed on trucks. Bulldozers had to clear the debris from the roads enabling the trucks to make the journey. All the necessary equipment was in town by the third day and with the help of the Wairoa Works Civil Construction and contractors from Wairoa and Napier, the pipebridge structure and pipe laying was completed within the week. The first temporary water pipe our local Firemen laid remained in place as backup for a few months but the A-frame remained in place until the completion of the new bridge when once again the water was pumped through pipes bracketed to the side of the bridge.

Once the Awamate flooding subsided Water Tankers which had been filled on the north side were driven around by volunteers to the south. Many volunteers were involved with the distribution of clean water as with The Wairoa Fire Brigade, The Waitaki Rescue Squad, Civil Defence Volunteers and the Wairoa residents. The Waitaki Rescue Squad traveled up and down the streets with their Water Tanker going from door to door and giving out water to those in need.
A water supply was organised from a pumped pipe bore along Rutherford Street near the Tawhara Valley. The supply was manned and water was supplied from roadside taps. Locals drew from the supply and filled their own containers. The water was clean but boiling it first before using was advised.

The Awamate Road was not opened to the public straightaway. The road was covered in mud in many parts and dangerously slippery. The Ministry of works started to clear the road once the flooding subsided and only emergency vehicles were allowed through. There was strict control over the traffic with road blocks both sides. No one without special authorisation by way of an endorsed pass was allowed through. The colour of the ticket was changed each day and the pass you obtained yesterday was not valid for the following day.
Petrol was on short rations at this stage. The locals could only buy $10.00c worth of petrol per vehicle.

The day after the bridge collapsed on the 9th of March, the Palmerston North Civil Defence offered Wairoa the use of a Pontoon Bridge. Palmerston North, in their endeavour to help the Wairoa people, had organised the New Zealand Airforce to fly it in by a Hercules Aircraft. This would have provided access in place of the lost traffic bridge linking both broken sides. For some reason this did not eventuate and we have not been able to find out why. Although this would have been limited access, at least it would have allowed a quicker means to cross from one side to the other.

Wairoa Bridge

Those involved worked without a break to retain the power supply and water supply to the south side and the telephone services and sewage services to the north side. Temporary power lines to help supply the rural areas who were without power were added and telephone lines were strung from the northern side across the gap where once the Wairoa bridge stood, as you can see above. Thankfully the wait was not long as opposed to many rural areas in Gisborne that were without power for a week or more. It was difficult to access many of the remote areas with mud and land slides covering many roads and access points.

The flooding in North Clyde, the north side was far worse than the south. Carroll Street businesses were badly hit, with a carpet of ankle deep silt covering the floors of most of the businesses from Smithy's Dairy down to the swollen river bank. On the other side of the street the Ferry Hotel Motel Units were also badly damaged. The residents described Carroll Street as a sea of water during the flooding. One of the worst hit was The North Clyde Book and Gift Shop which was completely swamped in water and mud.[3]

Ruataniwha and Waihere Roads were the worst hit residential areas. Gardens and homes were completely flooded and when the flood waters subsided, smelly stagnant mud was left in its place. Carpets had to be lifted from many homes and hoses used inside and out to spread and eventually clear out the banks of mud. Many people helped with the cleanup. Volunteers from the south side crossed the river by boats or shuttled around by road to help those on the north side selvage what they could.

Temporary accommodation and Welfare Centres were set up as with Waitaki, the Memorial Hall, North Clyde School to name a few. Mattresses and bedding was loaned by local Maraes and residents. Food Vouchers were available for those needing assistance. Many residents opened their homes and offered shelter, food and beds for those stranded. The Mohaka and Raupunga Maraes also accommodated people affected by Bola likewise the Mokotahi Hall and the Waihua School. The Wairoa people donated whatever was needed especially food. They cooked for each other and delivered food where necessary. The hundreds of volunteers were amazing, whether it be wading out in the mud and rain trying to figure out reconnecting the town's water supply or making up mattresses on the floor, everyone was essential along the chain to ensure the safety and well being of all residents.

Because of transport difficulties emergency services were set up on both sides with Doctors in attendance. Our local doctors used each others surgeries on each side to ensure they could cover there patients. The Wairoa local doctors worked long hours likewise community nurses, the St Johns Ambulance service and the Wairoa Hospital staff. Those needing assistance all received it.

The mail service was also hindered with no inbound or outbound mail for 4 days. On the 12th of March a few Mailman delivered to a few areas. With the roads closed mail was flown in but it was not until the roads fully opened that the Wairoa Mail Service fully resumed. Delivery to the north side was much later in the day as it had to be transported around by van.

This also applied to the Newspaper deliveries which also took many days to return to normal. The Wairoa people listened to their radios. This became the main source for news as far as what was happening in Wairoa and the district.

During this period there were two deaths in Wairoa both caused by the lack of access to the Wairoa Hospital on the south side. Although every attempt was made to transport both these people to the Army Dinghy and across the river, the time involved was too great. One local woman lost her life in child birth and one local gentleman lost his life from a heart attack.

The water subsided eventually leaving our banks, roads, rail and land covered in silt and debris. Branches and rumble lay sodden in the mud as shown above. Many areas were cut off from the outside world and remained that way for days. Huge slips of soil, boulders and branches covered the roads. In places part of the road was washed out completely. The roads up through Tuai and Lake Waikaremoana were covered in massive slips and the residents remain isolated for days before The Ministry of Works could clear a track through.

Wairoa Bridge

The photo above says more than any words. Our land was covered in silt and mud.

Wairoa Bridge

The photo above of the Harvey Homestead shows how high the water level had risen further up in the catchment area and the mess it left once receded.

Wairoa Bridge

The photo above was taken in the Matahorua Gorge after the road was cleared to allow traffic through. Most of the gorge had massive slips across the road.

Wairoa Bridge

The Photo above was taken along the Awamate Road and again much of this road was a wash with silt after the waters subsided.

Wairoa Bridge

The Photo above shows clearly what was left once the water receded along Marine Parade East and the Wairoa Water Ski Club.

The success achieved in the first week following Cyclone Bola can be contributed to the dedication of our voluntary services, The Police, The Fire Brigade, Civil Defence Workers, The Ministry of Works workers, The Wairoa Councilors, Wairoa Engineers, relief organisations and to all those in our community that rallied around helping in their field. Whether this was making breadrolls for the workers at the bridge site, or checking on those who lived alone, giving comfort. Wairoa as a whole worked, supported, assisted and as a community succeeded with so much against them in those first few days.

There are far to many people that need mentioning so this article will remain free of names but those reading this who lived in Wairoa in March 1988 know. They know who they are.

Wairoa Bridge

After the first week when life was returning back to seemingly normal, local engineers surveyed the remains of the Wairoa Bridge weighing up cost effective choices. After much consorting and sourcing the Wairoa Borough Council decided repairing the bridge was just not viable and a new structure should be build to ensure the lifelines to the south were never severed again in future years.

Wairoa Bridge

Wairoa had seen a few bridges built across the river as you can view below. Time after time they crumbled under pressure. This through the years can be contributed to the lack of materials, lack of construction equipment, inadequate knowledge of the district catchment area by the engineers and mostly the lack of respect for the power of mother nature, who had through the years torn away whatever man erected to bridge the Wairoa Township with the North Clyde Township.

Old Wairoa Bridge

Above is the first Wairoa Bridge built in 1888.

Old Wairoa Bridge

Above is the a photo of the bridge after the 1931 Napier Earthquake which struck on Tuesday the 3rd of February 1931 at 10.47am with a Richter Magnitude of 7.8

Wairoa Bridge

The photo above is the remains of the first Wairoa Bridge built in 1888.

The building of the second Wairoa Bridge began, this one was to be much stronger than the first wooden one to combat the elements, but at the end of 1932 a second earthquake struck.

The Wairoa Township felt the force of the 1932 earthquake on the 16th of September with a Richter Magnitude of 6.9 and the half built second bridge took its toll. The strong shaking left the piles on a dangerous lean, one span collapsed and the girders broke right away and hung down in the river waters.

Wairoa Bridge

Work began again on the second bridge and this time it was completed in 1933 and was to carry traffic to and fro for the next 55 years until its disintegration during Cyclone Bola as shown above.

Back to 1988 - the photo below shows the bridge on a different angle. Clearly here you can see the second lot of water hoses that were erected with an arch and strainers to keep them up and tort.

Wairoa Bridge


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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