disaster

The River Rises Again

Looking up Victoria Avenue with the Post Office tower in the centre.  Unknown photographer, 1904 (W-F-053)

Looking up Victoria Avenue with the Post Office tower in the centre. Unknown photographer, 1904 (W-F-053)

As Whanganui recovers from the largest flood in recorded history, we are again reminded of the immense and untameable power of the mighty awa. There have been several events in the recorded past when the river has burst its banks and invaded the township, and even more before recorded history.

The first flood of note occurred in 1891 when rain fell continuously from Thursday 12 February until midday the following day. The river rose rapidly and was reported to have smelled of sulphur and carried a variety of detritus including timber, trees, waka, household furniture, grain and even sheep.

Whanganui River looking from Durie Hill towards Moutoa Gardens. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-018)

Whanganui River looking from Durie Hill towards Moutoa Gardens. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-018)

By 10.00am on Friday 13 February, the river water had invaded the boat sheds on Taupō Quay.  Hotels, which stored their wares in the cellar, and shop owners, had to remove their stock by boat to prevent loss. A growing crowd of residents gathered to watch the salvage work and the swelling river, and even observed some unlucky people attempting to get to their houses by boat, only to be capsized. By 2.00pm the river was only six inches from the town wharf and four feet below the deck of the Town Bridge.

Many boats and waka were washed out to sea, but the rowing clubs emptied their sheds to limit the loss. The Wanganui Harbour Board lost a dredge and a punt, and the steam launch Moutoa also came adrift, although it was later rescued at Pipiriki.

Flood water from Paul's Corner, Yarrows Fish Shop and Restaurant, Steam Packet Hotel, Prince of Wales Hotel, A Mason's Store. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-011)

Flood water from Paul’s Corner, Yarrows Fish Shop and Restaurant, Steam Packet Hotel, Prince of Wales Hotel, A Mason’s Store. Photographer: A Martin, 13 February 1891 (W-F-011)

Residents recalled the earlier floods they had witnessed in 1858, 1864, and 1875, and Māori remembered earlier ones still, but this one was agreed to be the largest in living memory.

By 11.00pm on Saturday night Taupō Quay was dry, but the roaring river had left behind a lot of mud and a huge amount of clean-up work. The flood damaged the roads in the town, closed several rural roads, caused damage to the river bank, washed away sections of the railway and left others underwater, lifted telegraph poles and disrupted communications, and left parts of the Whangaehu Valley waist-deep in places.

Thirteen years later in 1904, the rain again fell for several days, and the unseasonable warmth of the rain melted the early snow upstream. The Whanganui River began to swell, and by 9.30pm on Wednesday 25 May, the water was on the road by the rowing sheds on Taupō Quay. An hour later the roads between the Metropolitan Hotel and Moutoa Gardens were submerged and people were canoeing in the flood waters.

Looking towards the Victoria Avenue and Taupō Quay intersection, James Thain & Co to the right Photographer: Unknown, 1904 (W-F-055)

Looking towards the Victoria Avenue and Taupō Quay intersection, James Thain & Co to the right
Photographer: Unknown, 1904 (W-F-055)

Despite the late hour, a crowd gathered to watch the drama unfold. Observers on the Town Bridge could feel it vibrating with the force of the water flowing beneath, and the police were called in to dissuade loiterers, for fear the bridge would be washed away and take them with it.

By dawn the next day the river was over a foot above the 1891 flood lines and almost three times its usual width. The massive and powerful flow washed some riverside houses away, invaded many more, and left streets underwater.

Flood waters near the Union Bank of Australia Co. Ltd on Victoria Avenue Photographer: Possibly W H T Partington, 1904 (W-F-063a)

Flood waters near the Union Bank of Australia Co. Ltd on Victoria Avenue
Photographer: Possibly W H T Partington, 1904 (W-F-063a)

Those who owned carts and boats made the most of the situation by charging a nominal fee to ferry passengers to the best spots to witness the flood, although those not licensed to carry passengers were later fined by the police. This was a time when amateur photography was really starting to take off, so those with portable cameras took the opportunity to capture the event. Water began to subside at 11.30am on Sunday morning, again leaving a huge amount of mud and silt behind.

On Friday 23 and Saturday 24 February 1940 the rain fell heavily in the back country causing the river to flood again. The hardest hit areas in the town included Taupō Quay, Wanganui East, Aramoho, and Pūtiki. In Anzac Parade the water was up to three feet deep, covering gardens and entering houses and drowning the rides in Kōwhai Park. Residents were given plenty of warning to evacuate their houses and try to salvage what they could before the waters hit.

Spectators watching rowers outside the rowing clubs on Taupō Quay. Photographer: C F Newham & Co, 1940 (W-F-080)

Spectators watching rowers outside the rowing clubs on Taupō Quay. Photographer: C F Newham & Co, 1940 (W-F-080)

The Wanganui–Wellington road was blocked at Whangaehu, and the Parapara and Pipirīkī roads were blocked by slips. Rural bridges were swept away and witnesses recalled the Whangaehu Valley looking like an inland lake.  A dredge broke free near Wanganui East and smashed into the Dublin Street Bridge, then passed under the Town Bridge before crashing into the Imlay Wharf. And at the peak of the flood at midday on Saturday, the waters on Taupō Quay were over two feet deep; however, damage to stock and premises was not as bad as first feared.

Then on Saturday 10 March 1990, 30 hours of solid rain caused the river to burst its banks again. Kōwhai Park and Anzac Parade went underwater and Civil Defence evacuated many residents. Some tried to protect their houses with sandbags but the waters flowed over them, and the flow was strong enough to rearrange the furniture in several homes. Although high enough to submerge Corliss Island, the river only just managed to touch the road behind the old Chronicle buildings on Taupō Quay, sparing the business district from too much damage.

A car is stranded in flood waters. Photographer: Unknown, 1940 (W-F-134)

A car is stranded in flood waters. Photographer: Unknown, 1940 (W-F-134)

Part of the job of the Whanganui Regional Museum is documenting our community. In 100 years, people will want to know what the great flood of 2015 was like. We have archival photos of the flooding in 1904 and 1940, but many of the photos and videos created over the last 10 days might end up being lost or deleted or locked away in Facebook. We would like to add some to our digital collection.

If you have photos or videos of the flood that you would like to donate to the Museum for future generations, email them to the Archivist on sandib@wrm.org.nz. Remember to include in the email:

  1. Date, time and place it was taken, as best you can remember
  2. The (full) names of anyone shown
  3. What is important or significant about the photo/video; imagine you’re explaining it to your grandkids.

Sandi will contact you with any paperwork required, and the images will be accessioned into the Museum’s database with you noted as the donor. Help us record this event for posterity.

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Caring for a precious collection

Caring for a precious collection

We were in the vaults; that converted carpark wherein lies most of the museum’s property. Much of it is already old, and we expect it to get much older. With the latest run of natural disasters and threats to man-made structures, heritage or otherwise, how long can we preserve our history?  “We’re looking for perpetuity,” says museum curator, Libby Sharpe. “Most people would never imagine that the museum has about 80 per cent of its collection in storage … That 15 per cent on display is more or less a formula for most museums.”

Libby began her museum career at the Canterbury museum, a place that underwent major earthquake proofing a couple of decades ago. It paid off. Their website reports minimal structural damage to the old buildings and 99 per cent of the collection is unharmed.

She says Wanganui is particularly prone to flooding and during the 2004 deluge the museum, itself safely above the rising water table, helped people clean and restore family papers, photographs and paintings and assist with advice and direction. She says family treasures and memories can often matter more than a house or other property and their loss can be devastating. So we talked about disasters and the plans that are in place for such institutions as museums, art galleries and libraries.

“They have specific priorities in rescue,” says Libby, “Obviously, people first, but we hold these collections that are immensely valuable, and I don’t necessarily mean in terms of money, although that is a consideration. They are a huge asset, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.” She talked about measures that are in place to preserve damaged material until experts can take over and complete the restoration. For example, she says she has seen sodden, ancient books being wrapped in plastic and put in the freezer until such time as serious salvage can be performed.

The archives in our museum is a huge collection by most standards and it is uniquely Wanganui. As Libby says, there is no other collection like it in the world. “So you see, we do take a lot of trouble with our storage. We use waxed boxes which have a degree of fire retardancy and also protect from light and atmospheric dirt,” she says. The boxes (called transit boxes) also allow air to circulate, preventing mildew and dankness. She also mentioned a ‘number 8 wire fix’ used since the 1970s to store rolled plans; realising they would be crushed if stored in a flat drawer or shelf, someone came up with the idea of a calico sling.

Keeping in mind changing technology and standards of preservation, Libby says, “Anything we do should be reversible. Conservation is incredibly expensive because it’s time-consuming and vastly expert. Conservators train for seven or eight years.” She says the local museum staff are trained in basic conservation to enable them to provide optimum conditions for the collection and to prevent any further deterioration. Temperature and relative humidity is monitored, keeping conditions right to keep the collection stable.

Libby showed me a red line that runs along the concrete in the ‘vaults’. To one side of that line, the concrete flooring has been reinforced to allow storage of great weights. Up to 500kg per square metre can be stored on that part of the museum, contrasting with up to 300kg outside the line. She also showed me one of several orange cupboards in which emergency supplies are stored. Most of the equipment within is for dealing with water damage. There are also personal lidded buckets for each staff member, filled with essential items should disaster strike.

As we walked through the vaults, Libby showed how shelving was made secure and how stored items like crockery were protected with acid-free foam. Ancient stone tools rest in their drawers, fitting snugly into thick-cut double-layered foam. She says the museum is one of the most protected buildings in Wanganui, certainly as far as fire safety and security against human invaders is concerned, as well as safeguards against time.

“We have to lessen the impact of disaster by how we manage our building and collections,” says Libby. “We need to address possibility, not wait for inevitability. All the same, all the money and all the care in the world will not guarantee either is safe.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.