The Kopuawhara Stream, on the Mahia Peninsula, on the East Coast of the North Island, flooded suddenly early in the morning of 19 February 1938. A 5-metre wall of water hit the nearby Kopuawhara No. 4 public works camp, sweeping the huts away and killing 21 people.
The Kopuawhara No. 4 public works camp was one of a series of camps set up for construction workers building the Wairoa-Gisborne railway, just before the Second World War. The camp was on the banks of the Kopuawhara Stream and was made up of houses for married men, which were located on the higher ground, and a cookhouse and huts for 47 single men, which were located close to the river bank.
There had been heavy rain in the area and the river was in flood, but the level of the river had been higher at other times. No one was worried about it.
Wall of water swept through the camp
Early in the morning of February 19, sometime after 3:00 am, a sudden flood raced down the river, hitting the camp with a 5 metre wall of water and sweeping the huts away.
One of the workers had woken in time to raise the alarm, just as the water broke the banks of the stream and began flooding across the camp site. He ran from hut to hut, banging a gong and beating on the doors, but was swept away as he struggled to reach one of the huts.
As the wall of water hit, men struggled to make their way to safety through water up to their necks. Some took refuge on the roofs of huts, only to be pulled away by the torrent as the huts collapsed. 14 men managed to climb onto the roof of the cookhouse. Part of the building fell away, but the rest of it held, and the men were rescued at daylight.
One man sheltered behind a hut, expecting it to be swept away at any moment, but it was one of three huts which remained standing, and he survived. A waitress was swept away and two men who tried to save her were also lost. 11 men took shelter in one of the work trucks, but drowned when it was thrown over onto one side by the force of the water. Only the bonnet of the truck was found, 12 kilometres downstream.
The next morning search parties scoured the lower reaches of the river, and recovered bodies from the debris which was scattered over five miles and included wreckage from the huts, blankets, clothes and dead sheep, cattle and eels.
How many died?
21 people died (20 men and 1 woman)
Other events and outcomes
A second camp downstream could also have been caught in the flood, but the alarm had been raised earlier, and all the inhabitants were able to escape to higher ground.
A mass funeral was held in Wairoa on Monday 20 February for the victims of Kopuawhara No. 4 Camp.
A monument to the flood victims was put up on the high ground above the river in 1942.
More information and sources
- Darkest days, Bruce Morris, Auckland, 1987.
- New Zealand’s heritage, Vol. 6, Wellington, [1971-73]
- The Kopuawhara flood at Te Ara
- Search our catalogue for information about the Kopuawhara Flood.
- The Kopuawhara flood disaster, Evening Post, 21 February 1938 via Papers Past