Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 53, September 2009
(by Graham Watton from the Hauraki Plains Gazette, Friday, May 6, 1938)
The low-lying northern area of the Hauraki Plains, from Miranda to Kopu was inundated by a large tidal flood on the night of Wednesday, May 5, 1938.
Most of this area was the first to be developed when the Hauraki Plains was drained from around the very early 1900s. There was a stopbank constructed along the southern or top end of the Firth of Thames to prevent the spring tides from encroaching onto the newly developed land.
While this work held the normal tides at bay it was no defence against the huge tide of 1938. There was extremely strong north-easterly gale blowing up the Firth during Wednesday accompanied by torrential rain.
The gale-force winds, in association with a deep low depression trough in the Hauraki Gulf, built up a huge high tide. This breached the foreshore stopbank in several places and soon covered the 4000 acres from Miranda to Kopu, and inland to the Kopu-Waitakaruru road. Farmers and property owners awoke on the Thursday morning to find sea water, from 18 inches (50 cm) to 4 feet (1.30m) deep, covering the whole area.
Houses had to be evacuated, farm sheds were severely hit, but fortunately stock loses were minimal. The damage to the pastures was huge as the salt-laden water took several days to drain away as the drains were either clogged with debris or those with flood gates on the two rivers, Piako and Waihou, did not work owing to both rivers being in high flood.
A Public Works Department engineer flew over the foreshore stopbank and located several breaches with the cost of repairs estimated in thousands of pounds. A similar estimate was made of the damage to pasture, as the salt water had caused considerable damage and most of the area had to be re-sown with grass seed. Many farmers had just put down their newly developed pastures.
At Turua the very high tide forced floodwaters to overflow stopbanks on the Waihou River and inundated the township and also the Huirau Road area where the water entered every home.
Likewise, the Piako River went over its stopbanks in the Hopai and Horahia areas submerging farmland.
Although the stopbank at Kopuarahi did not break, the water backed up the Piako River so strongly that it poured over the top of the stopbank in the vicinity of the landing. Nearby farms of McMillan and Candy were hard hit.
Undoubted the greatest damage was done at Pipiroa. After the sea water had come over the banks it forced an outlet for itself back into the Piako River, opposite Rolfe's Store. Here the force of the flood carried away a floodgate and a large section of the stopbank. As the tide went back downstream, the water flowed across the main highway at a tremendous pace, sweeping away most of the road.
At Waitakaruru and Miranda most damage was done by sea water covering the farm land.
In the aftermath of this disastrous flood it was considered that the foreshore stopbank was some 3ft (1m) too low. Over the next few years the bank was raised. In the Waihou Valley Scheme the stopbanks in the Turua area were rebuilt and on the Piako River the banks were rebuilt under the Piako River Scheme which was done during the 1960s and 1970s.
Much earlier, in April, 1924, an abnormal high tide backed by a northerly gale forced the salt water over the top of the foreshore stopbank from Waitakaruru to Orongo. In the Miranda area the water was several feet deep, while over the remaining area the land suffered pasture damage.
There have several storms of the magnitude of 1938 disaster in the Firth of Thames, but the stopbanks defences have been sufficient to keep the damage to a minimum.
The Flood at Pipiroa
(by Nellie Scott, from "The Hauraki Plains Story" 1974)
Wednesday, May 4, 1938, commenced with heavy rain, which continued throughout the day, increasing in force as night approached. Then a heavy storm from across the Gulf coupled with high tides, brought in their wake one of the worst floods yet experienced on the Plains.
My husband, the late Ted Scott, had just thrown the Herald aside and remarked: "Thank goodness we don't live in the Esk Valley (where severe floods were raging)". He promptly went to sleep—Not me, l lay awake listening, frightened to rise and look. Finally I wakened Ted and said I was sure water was lapping against the wall. His reply to that was that I had been reading too much about the Esk Valley.
Bravely I got out of bed in pitch darkness and stood in water above the calves of my legs. Our immediate thought was to get the three children as high above water has possible. This we did by pilling everything we could on the highest bed and placing them in the centre. Then I heard what I thought was a motor.
"They must be coming out from Thames to save us," I breathed. To which I received this reply: "Don't be silly they don't know we are flooded yet."
The noise was from the electric stove. I promptly waded in water above my knees and procured a piece of kindling wood, I put the power off at the meter—complete darkness.
Ted decided to get a ladder from the new home in the course of erection. On opening the door, water poured in throwing the lino back on us, tipping easy chairs etc., over in its wake. The back porch had been washed away so Ted immediately found himself up to his neck in water.
Something loomed up in front of him and fortunately passed him. It was a small stack of hay being carried away bodily. Next morning Mr Jack Knox's dog was found there on top of the stack safe and sound.
We eventually got the ladder into the house and made the manhole bigger—placing necessary articles up on the ceiling in case of need. I saw our two-year-old stirring and promptly gave up my post at the bottom of the ladder to rescue her.
Naturally the ladder floated away and Ted was left suspended by one hand in the ceiling—the other hand held the saw. Eventually he received his second complete ducking that night. We spent the rest of the night on either side of the bed caring for the children. By the light of matches we learned that the water had reached a level of three feet (almost a 1m) inside our house and now was subsiding.
Daylight, and to view the scene. The timber (triangular stacked) for the new home had floated across the road and fences and was deposited in Knox's and Morgan's paddocks.
The dairy herd were all standing in the milking shed with water up their ribs. The calves had got on to a small mound and huddled together. The bulls were bellowing at the gate, the pigs had scrambled on to anything they could find, and the hens were still on their roost—except for a couple which were drowned, our only casualties for the night. Jack Knox found his piglets holding on to the top wire of the fence by bending their front legs at the knee joint, forming a grip.
Schnapper and flounder were alive in the drains and soon the spectators arrived, if they got nothing else at least they had fish for dinner that day.
Offers of help were forthcoming. I shall never forget Mr Howard (Bob) Dalgety opening his heart and his farm gates to our entire herd. He had only 90 acres of land and his was still in milk. However, after three weeks we were able to procure land for the stock and relive him of his generous offer.
The road between the Pipiroa Wharf and store was washed away until it was barely three feet (1m) wide and over this our entire herd had to pass. We were doing nicely when the Rev Truman, out to visit "his flock", appeared on the scene and thinking the cattle had got away on us, tried to turn them back. The bellowing cattle, coupled with the roar of the water, prevented Ted from getting a message across, but finally Mr Truman did comprehend. I never thought I would ever hear Ted speak like that a "man of the cloth".
Kindness of Mr and Mrs J. W. Arbury, drapers, Thames, also stays with me today. To every household affected by water they sent a parcel of clothing, an article for each member of the family.
We had eight cows and one bull drop dead from the shock within a few days. We always maintained that the deposit left from the salt water invasion did ultimately help the fertility and productivity of our land so eventually some good resulted: "God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform".
This is only remembrance of the 1938 flood and other settlers experienced the same ordeal, but I have kept my story a personal one.