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1936 Cyclone

1936 Cyclone:

02 February 1936 | North Island, Regional/Provincial, Southern hemisphere, Urban

In early February 1936, a devastating cyclone, possibly New Zealand’s most destructive storm in the last century, struck the North Island.

This storm formed south of the Solomon Islands late January 1936. It met up with a cold front north of New Zealand on 31 January and intensified as it changed to an ex-tropical cyclone, then crossed the North Island on 2 February. It was not assigned a name as the practice of naming tropical cyclones did not begin until 1963.

Heavy rain fell over the entire North Island bringing most of the major rivers into flood. The Mangakahia River in Northland rose 19 metres at Titoki. Kaitaia’s main-street flooded a metre deep and one man drowned when a house there was washed away.  Another man was killed near Thames when his hut was carried into a flooded stream by a slip. In Whangerei almost 300 mm of rain fell in 24 hours and floodwater ran through the business district tearing up footpaths and entering buildings. Gelignite was used in an unsuccessful attempt to clear driftwood piled up against Victoria Bridge.

Drowned sheep, cattle, pigs and chickens, mingled with trees were a commonplace sight in rivers all over the North Island.

An observer by the Ngutunui stream on the side of Mount Pirongia between Kawhia and Te Awamutu saw large rimu and kahikatea trees toppled end over end in the torrent when their roots or branches caught on the stream bed. When the water subsided, both banks of the stream had been swept clean of soil and vegetation and he picked up 40 dead trout and counted hundreds of dead eels killed by timber and boulders in the flood.

In Hawkes Bay, the Tukituki River flooded the settlement of Clive, drowning 1500 sheep in stock-yards and cutting the road and rail link between Napier and Hastings.

All over the North Island roads and railway lines were affected: covered by slips in places, inundated by floodwaters or undermined by washouts in others. Many bridges were damaged or destroyed. Near Stratford, the railway line was blocked by more than a dozen slips, the biggest of which was 500 metres long and full of trees. Another slip diverted a stream so that it flowed a metre deep through a tunnel, leaving it strewn with driftwood.

The Wanganui River inundated thousands of acres of farmland, entered a number of houses and carried away two spans of the Shell Oil company’s wharf. The Okehu water pipeline was cut, leaving the city with only one day’s supply of water. The nearby Whangaehu River rose almost two metres in half an hour, drowning hundreds of sheep. The Manawatu River rose 5 metres and flooded the Taonui Basin, turning it into an inland sea.

In the Wairarapa, the Ruamahanga River flooded farmland, cutting off the town of Martinborough. The Waiohine River covered the main highway, which was also blocked by a slip on the Rimutuka Road.

Streets in Masterton were flooded by the Waipoua River, while, nearby at Kopuaranga, a 14 ton traction engine disappeared into a river normally only a metre deep.

Storm surge caused extreme tides along the east coast of the North Island. Fishing launches were driven ashore at Whitianga in Coromandel. At Te Kaha in the Bay of Plenty, a sea higher than any in living memory washed a house into the ocean and swept away eight fishing boats. Near East Cape huge seas entered the estuary of the Awatere River and smashed part of a factory, while at Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast, the sea washed away the sandhills and invaded houses a hundred metres inland.

The wind blew in windows from Picton to Kaitaia and brought down hundreds of thousands of trees, cutting power, telephone, and telegraph lines all over the North Island. Palmerston North was hardest hit. Houses lost roofs, chimneys were blown over, grandstands at three sports grounds were demolished, and a man was blown off his roof and killed. One large building housing 12 cars collapsed damaging all of the vehicles. Twenty-eight large trees came down over the main power lines on one 120-metre stretch of road.

A train was derailed near Makerua just south of Palmerston North when three carriages were blown down a bank, injuring a number of passengers. Empty wagons were blown over in several other places and fallen trees blocked the line between Levin and Otaki so that passengers had to take to them with axes before trains could pass.

At Longburn, the Anglican Church was demolished and scattered over the road and railway line, while a horse on a nearby farm was cut in half by a flying sheet of corrugated iron.

Buildings were also destroyed in Taranaki. The Badminton Hall was blown down in Inglewood and the Anglican Church lost its roof. In New Plymouth, the Frankleigh Park Hall was destroyed. In Waitara, a number of large buildings disintegrated, and a 25 metre steel and brick chimney was blown over, as was the Harbour Board beacon tower. In Rotorua, the historic Anglican Mission church at Ohinemutu was blown down.

The wind wrought havoc in orchards all over the North Island, destroying much of the fruit. Crops like maize, wheat, and oats were flattened from Marlborough to Northland; haystacks blew away; and in Pukekohe, potato plants were sheared off at ground level. Floodwaters destroyed crops of peas in Marlborough, strawberries and tomatoes in Wanganui, oats in Wairarapa, and kumera in Northland.

Shop windows in Auckland were blown in and some houses lost roofs. In Cornwall Park, hundreds of trees were snapped off or uprooted accompanied by sounds likened to cannon fire. Falling trees brought down power lines in all suburbs and delayed trams. Forty boats were sunk or driven ashore in the Waitemata Harbour and several more in the Manukau.

A fishing launch from New Plymouth was lost at sea, its father and son crew presumed drowned. Numerous small boats were wrecked in Wellington’s harbor and a coastal steamer driven ashore near Kaiwharawhara. Part of Te Aro baths in Oriental Bay blew away and was chased across the water by the Harbour Board’s launch. Pounding waves washed away the ground underneath the railway line near Ngahauranga, leaving the tracks suspended in mid-air.

Disaster was only narrowly averted when the inter-island ferry Rangatira, heading for Wellington, steamed onto Red Rocks ten kilometres from the harbour mouth, in winds almost as bad as those that, 32 years later, would sink the Wahine. After being stuck fast for 20 minutes, the Rangatira was able to reverse off, then turn and back slowly up the harbor. Taking water in through gaping holes in the bow, her propellers were half out of the water and her forward lower passenger decks were awash by the time she grounded next to Clyde Quay wharf. Fortunately, none of the 800 passengers and crew suffered serious injury.

Two people died of exposure in the Tararua Range north of Wellington where, at the height of the storm, tress were uprooted from ridges and thrown bodily into valleys. Trampers described whirlwinds twisting the crowns off trees until all the branches splintered off.

Among the more unusual effects of the storm was the discovery, at Taupo, of a red-billed tropic bird (amokura) blown down from the Kermadec Islands – which lie about 1000 km northeast of Auckland. Tropic birds are rarely seen in New Zealand, but according to the Victorian ornithologist Buller, Maori in the North Cape area would systematically search the beaches for them after an easterly storm as they valued their feathers and traded them south for greenstone.  

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