Water, water, everywhere . . . and often

20:00, Feb 14 2014

The rain started on Sunday morning, May 4, 1941, and kept falling in torrents, hour after hour.

That afternoon the Manawatu River had risen 19 feet (5.8 metres) above normal levels, and burst its banks above Fitzroy Bend.

At night, in homes on low-lying parts of Palmerston North, children were bundled out of their beds and belongings hastily snatched for flight, as floodwaters lapped under doors in the darkness.

So began the sixth major Manawatu flood since 1880.

"Many families were evacuated from Raukawa Rd near Ashhurst; from Te Matai Rd, where a block of 2000 acres was left a lake; and from the Hokowhitu district within the city area where the flood poured in at midnight," reported the Manawatu Standard on the Monday afternoon of May 5. "From late afternoon until dawn this morning, police parties, together with units of the territorial army forces now encamped in and about the city, worked unceasingly, evacuating people from houses, from rooftops, from islands - and in one case at least, from a telegraph pole."

This last misadventure was chronicled in city engineer John Hughes' report to the city council: "Whilst going to the rescue of a marooned family in Pahiatua St after midnight, the council employees - W Hughes, L Bryant and C Sexton, driving a horse and cart, were overwhelmed by the rush of water and had to take refuge on the safety box on top of a telegraph pole, the only one in Manawatu St, for two and a half hours until rescued by police. The horse, unfortunately, drowned."


Both of the sewerage pumping stations, in College St extension and at the end of Jickell St, were under water. Though almost no crude sewage escaped the holding tanks, the stations' motors and electrical control gear were damaged.

Once the waters went down, a massive cleanup started, with council staff working alongside the wartime army and Home Guard volunteers, members of the public and women from the Auxiliary Service Corps.

Sixty-two houses had water in them above floor level. The council surveyed each one and recorded the damage. Furniture and effects were removed, the drying kiln at W M Cook & Sons box factory was made available, and soggy bedding and floor coverings were washed out and cleaned. Silt and mud were removed from floors and footpaths, and "dead stock were removed as speedily as possible". Following an appeal by the mayor, Augustus Mansford, a relief fund of £107.10s was collected for those in distress.

Local historian and author Garry O'Neill, who grew up in Hokowhitu, was 6 years old at that time. Home was 187 Te Awe Awe St, where his parents had a small farm.

"My parents were asked on the Sunday night whether or not they wished to be evacuated, and they refused. At about 4am on the Monday morning they were approached again and Bryan, my brother, and I, were rescued (by boat) . . . we were taken to the Quigan home on Ihaka St for the rest of the night. I stayed until the Tuesday before being taken to my uncle's home on Camerons Line."

O'Neill, whose popular 2012 history of Hokowhitu includes an article: Hokowhitu and Floods, by Jill White, recalls: "My father tried to stop the water entering the house by blocking the entrance ways, but sadly he forgot about the manhole. Its top lifted off and in came the water."

The young Garry looked at the "water up the walls" on R E Harrison's home in Albert St - many years later he would include the Harrisons' biography in his book Hokowhitu - and noticed "a home where cups and saucers were floating out the fanlights. Many years later I met a later owner of this home who did not know the silt in the ceiling was from the 1941 flood."

On the Tuesday after the flood, his uncles arrived to help clean out the house, which was very damp.

"Fortunately, there were a number of fireplaces in the house."

Six weeks later, the O'Neill family moved to a new home in Limbrick St.

From the earliest times of immigrant settlement in Papaioea, the newcomers experienced regular floodings. Farmers hand-dug drains in the swampy areas.

Settler Peter Stewart recorded in his diary on March 7, 1871: "The country is all flooded. The Norwegians (immigrants who had arrived on their new land only a month earlier) are all flooded."

The "Great Flood" of June 14, 1902, not only washed away the southern approach to the Fitzherbert Bridge and inundated many buildings, but cut off the town's water supply for three days. The Manawatu Standard reported: "This morning people were seen catching rain in jugs and buckets as it came from the wastepipes from the roof. The shortage was particularly badly felt in sanitary matters. By 10am Hokowhitu was practically cut off from the borough - it is impossible to know the plight of the residents."

After 1941, the Manawatu Catchment Board built and raised stopbanks and began to plan more effective methods of river control.

But more floods lay ahead. The city's struggle with its moody river was far from over.

Read: An Uneasy Relationship: Palmerston North City & the Manawatu River 1941-2000 (thesis by Jill White, 2007, city archives.)

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