Summer 1971 was cloudless and bright in Taranaki. But on 21 February the thunder clouds rolled in bringing rain and one of the worst floods in living history. After 30 hours of continuous torrential rain, rivers and streams around Taranaki were struggling to cope with the deluge of water. And then the rain stopped, leaving in its wake water, lots of water.

The tunnels and culverts under central New Plymouth couldn't handle the raging Huatoki and Mangaotuku Streams. A tidal wave of rushing river water burst out into lower Devon Street, rising above all previous recorded levels. Water surged up through ruptures in the pavement, gushed up through culverts and overflowed into the street. The water raced through shops and poured on across the railway yards to the sea.

Around the city centre basements flooded, shop windows were broken and merchandise was strewn around the streets. Flood waters of the Huatoki began damming up behind the rear of Smith and Brown's shops along the street. The waters rose up to five metres in some places, threatening to collapse the shop rear walls and shop staff, who had been frantically trying to save their stock, were ordered out of the area as a safety measure.

A civil emergency was called and six blocks around the central city were evacuated. By 3am Thursday morning the floods had reached a peak, up to the parking meter tops in lower Devon Street. Civil defence volunteers, firemen and the police kept an all-night vigil, standing by rope barricades.

Residents in low lying areas of Weymouth, Clawton and Gaine Streets had to rush to save their valuables from the rising water. Some, thinking they had placed furniture and appliances out of harm’s way, found water almost lapping through the windows and their belongings ruined.

Artefacts rescued

Fears that valuable paintings and artefacts at the museum would be ruined were unfounded. Water entered the museum's basement through street-level air vents, but 30 to 40 helpers worked frantically to shift most of the material stored in the basement to higher levels.

Across the road from the library, historic Richmond Cottage had a metre of water flowing through it. But the only damage received was to a sofa and bedding.

Breakfast by roof

But there were moments of humour as The Daily News reported: “A breakfast of toast and eggs arrived over the roof tops yesterday morning for the two men marooned without food and cigarettes in the office of the New Plymouth Taxis. It was a welcome sight for Mr Noel Theobald and Mr Noel Barriball when food appeared through their window after their night-long duty surrounded by flood waters.

Mr Gordon Travers and Senior-Sergeant E.D Griffiths made their precarious way across the roofs in central Devon Street to hand food to the men by hanging over a parapet and passing it through a window.”

The Daily News again: “At high tide this morning the sea presented a dismal sight. Large logs and branches were being pinned against the rocks near the railway station and about a quarter of a mile out, riding low in the dirty, scum laden water was what appeared to be a large arm chair.” 

On Ariki Street two men waded through the flood waters to save kegs of beer that had floated off from a nearby hotel. After the flood had receded a shop owner approached the Mayor D.V. Sutherland with a dollar note in his hand. “I bet you a dollar we wouldn't get it in our basement - I lost" he said.

Stop bank saves Waitara

In Waitara the new stop bank saved the town from disappearing completely underwater. But the flood snuck in around the edges of the uncompleted bank. Water flowed into the central shopping area and buildings near the bridge were filled with water and debris.

The New Plymouth Boys' High School's boat shed, and the Clifton Rowing Club's shed were almost completely covered by the flood waters. The boats inside were dashed and broken.

The town had to battle two kinds of flooding - river water and surface flooding from the rain. Water was lapping at the doorsteps of houses in Strange Street. Locals came to the rescue, helping salvage goods from shops, and those in trouble from flooding.

The raging river sent logs hurtling into the piles of the town bridge. The sound of the thudding logs could be heard up to a block away. The bridge was declared unsafe and Taranaki's main link with the north was severed. For several hours Waitara was cut in two.

Farmers hit hard

Back country roads throughout Taranaki were isolated as roads were cut by slips, wrecked bridges and flood waters. Raging streams tore down fences, deposited huge logs on pasture and covered the land in thick, gluggy silt. Hillsides slipped away, taking miles of fencing and the occasional cow or sheep with it.

Hundreds of acres in the Makuri and Gordon Road valleys were under water, with farmers on higher land saying they had more slips than grass.

Worst hit were the areas of Strathmore and Douglas, both saddles were closed and many families were without power. Slips had destroyed hundreds of acres of land.

In Pātea the river was the highest in many years, flowing just under the wharves at the height of the flood. But farmers were being optimistic about the deluge, one farmer, when asked by a reporter what he thought of the deluge, replied: "Well, at least we won't be getting any facial eczema!"

The clean up

When the water receded mud and silt covered everything. Farmers faced financial woes as they contemplated rebuilding fences, grassing slips and replacing lost stock.

Long suffering businessmen returned to their ruined shops to face the biggest clean up in living memory. In New Plymouth many of the shops were declared unsafe, their floors ruptured and split by the water rushing up from underneath. Many were filthy with silt and debris, but others were bare boards where the flood waters had swept the merchandise out.

Two department stores were the worst hit. Smith and Brown's assistant manager A.G. Bone told a Daily News reporter that only three carpets out of the stock they kept in the store survived untouched. Half of the 14 lounge suites in store were swept away out the windows, ending up trapped in piles of debris hundreds of metres away. "The total damage is about $100,000 and could be more" said Mr Bone. The flooring in the front of the shop was lifted about 30cm and the rear was torn from its base and raised nearly a metre.

McKenzies suffered serious structural damage with its floor damaged and pushed up by a metre in places. About 200 suits hanging on racks were being sprayed down by staff of a men's outfitters in Devon Street. Racks and piles of flood damaged stock stood in the street as firemen pumped out shop basements.

Huge chunks were ripped out of the road and footpaths moved disconcertingly as people walked over them. New Plymouth had received over $1million in damage to buildings, roads and stock. Costs to outlying areas were difficult to calculate but were estimated at well over that. It was put down in history as (financially) one of the worst floods in living memory.

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