Nelson and Tasman Floods
Floods have, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the city of Nelson, particularly the Maitai / Mahitahi River, the Brook or York Streams, and more widely across the Tasman region. Flooding has wrought havoc on property, and resulted in injury and even death to residents.
From the time of Pakeha settlement, and the surveying and clearing and development of the land, the Maitai / Mahitahi catchment streams and river has flooded several times: 1844, 1879, 1904, 1908, 1910, 1916, 1918, 1960s and significantly, in the 1970's.
As early as 1913, land clearance was identified as a cause of flooding. A letter to the Nelson Evening Mail on 10 March 1913 from H G Kingsland addresses the “great question of deforestation”. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, most of the Maitai Valley (and indeed most of Nelson) would have been covered in toe-toe, fern and manuka, with dense stands of podocarp forest on the flats. What is now known as “The Wood”, was once about 60 hectares of native beech and kahikatea trees. This area provided the early settlers with timber for buildings and firewood, though sadly even this does not remain as kahikatea proved not to be a durable timber.
Clearing the land, residential building, wetland drainage, and reclamation has necessitated the many modifications on the streams to mitigate flooding.
The Flood and slips of 2011
On Tuesday 13 December, 2011, as people began to plan for summer, it began to rain and didn't stop until Thursday 15 December. The torrential rain was caused by a trough stalled between a low in the Tasman Sea and a high to the east of New Zealand. It was a one in 500 year downpour for Tākaka and a one in 250 year event in Nelson.1 A "pipeline" of rain had developed as subtropical moisture barreled in from the north Tasman Sea.2
The disaster was the worst the region had seen for decades. A third of Tākaka's normal annual rainfall (674mm) fell over two days. The coastal strip from Brightwater to north of Hira, including the hills behind Nelson also suffered from the deluge. At Richmond, 280mm was measured over 48 hours - more than a quarter of Richmond's normal annual rainfall.3
A state of emergency was declared on the evening of Wednesday 14 December following a day of heavy rain. The Matai / Mahitahi River rose, flooding its banks, precautionary sandbags were laid and several roads were closed.4 Hillsides became waterlogged and slipped - tons of mud, water and debris poured across farmland, roads and into houses.5
By 15 December, the band of intense weather began to move away from Nelson and the region began to assess the damage. There were multiple road closures and damaged properties. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes. Residents in Nelson's Wood area were evacuated as police feared a slipping hillside might collapse onto their houses.6 An apartment building on Wakefield Quay was evacuated due to a slip behind the building.7 About 30 homes above a major slip in Rocks Road were evacuated as a precautionary measure.8
State Highway 6 around Nelson's waterfront was closed, with peak traffic gridlocked on the main route between Richmond and Nelson.9 A slip put the city's water supply at risk and contractors worked furiously to stabilise the Maitai pipeline just below the Maitai Dam.10
Cable Bay was cut off for several days with many slips along the only road in to the small community. Network Tasman linesmen were flown in to restore power and supplies were taken in by helicopter.11
Groundwater on the Waimea Plains rose to unprecedented levels and large parts of Moturoa / Rabbit Island remained flooded five weeks later.12
In Golden Bay / Mohua the year was bookended by floods. In January 2011, floods described as the worst in 169 years, devastated parts of Golden Bay /Mohua, causing more than 6 million in damage. The swollen Anatoki and Aorere rivers raged through homes, washed stock downstream, destroyed bridges and damaged roads and power lines.13
In the December event, the rainfall was mainly coastal, and the lower country, unaccustomed to such heavy rain, became saturated and bore the brunt of the damage.14 People in Ligar Bay fled to higher ground as a wave of trees, mud, rocks and water thundered down the valley.15 Mike Robertson's 430-hectare Wainui Bay dairy farm was ravaged by 12 landslides which covered his paddocks, trapped 300 cows and left the land covered in up to five metres of mud. He expected it would take about a year to clean up the farm.16
Collingwood was cut off by a large slip on Birds Hill, and in Pōhara up to 30 Pōhara homes were damaged by a dam bursting.17 The winding road between Wainui Bay and Tōtaranui was blocked by slips and remained closed through the summer.18 In February, the New Zealand Transport Agency agreed to provide 2 million for the road's restoration as part of its Golden Bay / Mohua recovery package.19
It was considered incredible that nobody died in the disaster, but there were a few close calls. Ian Watts (77) was carried several hundred metres from his Clifton property when a deluge of water from nearby Ellis Creek tore through his house and carried him out onto his paddock. He suffered only a broken finger and wound to his hand.20 A huge rock dislodged from the hillside above Rocks Road slammed into the side of a four wheel drive vehicle as the driver waited in a queue of traffic - he was unhurt.21
By Saturday, 17 December, inspections were underway on more than 300 homes throughout Nelson/Tasman and nearly 140 properties were issued with red or yellow stickers.22 In February 2012, about 70 families were still unable to return to their homes. It was estimated that flood repairs and recovery for the whole region would cost around $40 million: about $15 million for Nelson and close to $25 million for Tasman. It was expected that recovery projects would take up to 10 years to complete, with the costs spread across that period.23
Forty five section 124 (red or yellow sticker) notices remained on properties in Nelson - mainly around Haven Road, Tāhunanui Drive and Princes Drive by the beginning of March 2012.24
Retired Nelson city engineer, Mac Crampton, said the 2011 flood in Nelson was less severe than a flood in September 1970 when two women died and dozens of Nelson homes were evacuated in what was then described as the worst flooding for almost 40 years.25 This flood had a significant impact on Nelson City Council infrastrucure, taking out many bridges and roads. Despite some Government financial support, other capital projects, such as plans for new Library and Museum buildings, were delayed for many years.
There have been a number of major flood events in the Nelson-Tasman region over the years, with severe flooding in 2010, 1986, 1983, 1970, 1957, 1947, 1929, 1904, 1895 - many of these causing severe slips and damage to equal the event of 2011. Search NIWA's historic weather events catalogue for information about floods in the region. Key information sources are also listed as "Further sources" below.
Follow the link below for video images of the December 2011 flood (scroll further down page for more images): Golden Bay flooding: amazement no one killed (2011, December 16) Stuff.co.nz
Floods in February 2018
In February 2018 Nelson and Tasman were hit by ex-Cyclone Fehi and a few weeks later, Cyclone Gita. Fehi coincided with a king tide and wreaked havoc along the Nelson and Tasman coastline and damaged heritage buildings and structures - for example the Boathouse, Boatshed and Cawthron's posts and chain along Wakefield Quay. Cyclone Gita severely damaged infrastructure in the Tasman District, particularly the Tākaka Hill Road, Cobb Valley bridge and Mārahau. New reports documented the event:
Ex-cyclone Fehi - February 8 2018:
- Gooch, C (2018, February 5) Ex-cyclone Fehi leaves lasting impression on Glenduan Nelson Mail on Stuff
- Neal, T. (2018. February 2) Nelson storm damage prompts tough conversations. Radio New Zealand
- Sivignon, C (2018, March 3) McKee campground near Nelson may close permanently. Nelson Mail on Stuff
Cyclone Gita - February 20/21 2018:
- Cyclone Gita: Flooding highest we've ever seen, say frightened Nelson Tasman locals (2018, February 21) New Zealand Herald
- Cyclone Gita: Whole trees, mud blanketing parts of Nelson, Tasman regions (2018, February 21) New Zealand Herald
- Gita: Clean-up may take 'longer than a year'(2018, February 22) Radio New Zealand
- Rethink for forestry after 'disaster' at Marahau (2018, February 28) Radio New Zealand
- Hindmarsh, N & Gee, S. (2018, February 21) Gita: Massive task ahead to re-open slip-damaged Takaka Hill highway. Nelson Mail on Stuff
Updated August 21, 2020
Sources used in this story
- Terry, F. and Cuff, T. (2012) After the Flood. New Zealand Geographic, March/ April p.30-41.
- Tasman District Council website
- Tasman District Council website
- Tasman District Council website
- Terry, F. and Cuff, T., p 36.
- Terry, F. and Cuff, T., p 40.
Want to find out more about the Nelson and Tasman Floods ? View Further Sources here.
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Further sources - Nelson and Tasman Floods
- Bell, C.W. (1958) Unfinished business: the second fifty years of Nelson City Council. Nelson, NZ: Nelson City Council , p.18-19; pp 91-96
- Cobb Dam Break Study (1996) Wellington, N.Z.: Works Consultancy Services.
- Clark, A. (1983). The Wrath of the Waters: The 1983 Takaka Valley Flood. [Nelson, N.Z.] : The Author
- De Lisle, J. & Kerr, I. (1965) The climate and weather of the Nelson region Wellington,N.Z.: NZ Met Service
- Falconer, B.(1963) Stability of the hillside at Tahunanui, Nelson a report to the Nelson City Council, presenting the results of some further investigation into the problem of landslip of the Tahunanui hillside and outlining a scheme to improve the stability of the hillside. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council.
- Floods in New Zealand, 1920-53 with notes on some earlier floods (1957) Wellington, NZ: Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council
- Grace, A. (1924) Jubilee history of Nelson City Council 1854-1924. Nelson, NZ: Nelson City Council
- Johnston, M, (1995) Geotechnical assessment Tahunanui Slump, Nelson. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council
- Mitchell, H. (1986) Takaka flood protection scheme.: a loan poll survey report. Nelson,N.Z. : Mitchell Research
- Mosley, M, Pearson, C, & Pearson, (1997). Floods and Droughts: The New Zealand Experience / Edited for The New Zealand Hydrological Society By M. Paul Mosley, Charles P. Pearson, Wellington, N.Z.: The Society.
- Munro, I. (1999) Back Then - Threads from Motueka's Past. Motueka, N.Z.: Motueka High School, pp 94-96.
- Nottage, D A (1991), Takaka Flood Frequency Maps And Newspaper Reports Of Historical Floods. Nelson, N.Z. : Nelson-Marlborough Regional Council.
- Poole, A. L. (1983). Catchment control in New Zealand. Wellington, N.Z: Water and Soil Division, Ministry of Works and Development for the National Water and Soil Conservation Organisation
- Quayle, A, Pointer, M & Challands, N. (1983) The Marlborough - Nelson Bays floods of 8-10 July 1983. Wellington, N.Z. :New Zealand Meteorological Service. Takaka River PMF Study. (1996). Wellington, N.Z.: Works Consultancy Services
2011/ 12 Flood (chronological listing)
- State of emergency in Nelson (2011, December 14) New Zealand Herald
- Floods wreak havoc in Nelson (2011, Dec 15) New Zealand Herald
- Lessons learned from the big flood (2012,Dec 17) Nelson Mail
- Nelson floods:$500K repair bill (2011, December 16) New Zealand Herald
- Totaranui campers will need to travel by boat (2011, December 17) Nelson Mail
- Farmer staunch as mud smothers land (2011, December 20) Nelson Mail
- Golden Bay: From flooding to summer preparations (2011, December 22) Stuff.co.nz
- Living on a slippery slope (2012, January 7) Nelson Mail
- Roads, walkway, cycleway and reserve closures (2012, January 20) Nelson Tasman Emergency Management
- Young S. (2012, March 1) Victims of flood fear approach of winter. Nelson Mail on Stuff.co.nz
- Young S. (2012, March 1) Axe falls on first flood hit city property. Nelson Mail on Stuff.co.nz
- Stuck in the mud 6 months on. (2012, June 16) Nelson Mail, p.1 [and other articles in this flood feature issue]
- Moore, B. (2012, December 14) One year on: the big flood. Nelson Mail. p.1 [and other articles in this flood feature issue]
Flood events pre-2011
- The Big Flood  (1959) Nelson Historical Journal 1(9), p.8
- Mitchell, David. (1990, August 13). Old man flood swept through 113 years ago. [February 1877]. The Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
- Nelson counts flood loss (1970, Sept 1) The Nelson Evening Mail (supplement)
- Pemberton, Greg. (1975/1976). Nelson flood control requires extensive modelling. Soil & Water, Dec-Jan 1975/1976 ,pp.5-8.
- Floods leave region devastated. (1983, July 11). The Nelson Evening Mail. pp. 1-6.
- Wisniewski, H. (1984) The Marlborough wetlands 1983 style. Soil & Water, 1, p. 4-13
- After the flood (1983, July 12). The Nelson Evening Mail, pp. 4-5
- State of emergency again: flooding hits Marlborough and Takaka. (1983, October, 22). The Press, p.1.
- Rai worst hit in four-day deluge. (1983, December 10). The Nelson Evening Mail, p1, 8.
- Chaos as storm takes Nelson by surprise: suspect bridge swept away- homes isolated. (1985, January 11). The Nelson Evening Mail, p.1, 3.
- Moore, Chris & Bill. (1986, January 25). Fear held for Brightwater as province cut off. The Nelson Evening Mail, p.1
- Flood cost: a life and $1 million. (1986, January 27). The Nelson Evening Mail, pp1,3 + photo page.
- Golden Bay cut off: Motueka mops up amid devastation. (1990, August 13). The Nelson Evening Mail, p. 1,3, 6.
- Emergency declared in Motueka (1990 August 13) Nelson Evening Mail p.3
- Golden Bay cut off (1990, August 13) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1
- Riwaka breaches surprise (1990 August 13) Nelson Evening Mail p. 7
- Rainfall total tops 100-year high (1990, August 14) Nelson Evening Mail p.3
- Huge flood clean-up confronted (1990 August 15) Nelson Evening Mail p.3
- Slip fears drive out families (1990, August 15) Nelson Evening Mail p.1
- Hope residents want flooding solution (1990, August 16) Nelson Evening Mail p.6
- Flood repair bill likely to top 4.4m (1990, August 18) Nelson Evening Mail p. 1
- Drought ends spectacularly (1995, January 27) Nelson Evening Mail p.1
- Storm fury (1998, March 3) Nelson Mail , p.1
- Flood Anniversary issue (2012, December) Live Nelson. [download PDF]
- Nelson Catchment Board. (1957). Supplement to Floods in New Zealand 1920-53: District Maps, Wellington: Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council.
Video and images 2011/ 12 Flood (chronological listing)
- State of emergency declared in Nelson (2011, December 14) TVNZ
- Golden Bay flooding: amazement no one killed (2011, December 16) Stuff.co.nz
- McSaveney, E, (2009) Floods - New Zealand's number one hazard. Te Ara
- Ministry for the Environment. Economic impacts on New Zealand of climate change-related extreme events. Retrieved 15 February 2011:
- NIWA: NZ historic weather events catalogue[search of all Nelson/Tasman flooding events].
- Terry, F. & Cuff, T. After the Flood. Retrieved from New Zealand Geographic 12 August 2020
Articles from Papers Past (a selection):
- The floods (1844, May 4) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 34
- The floods (1868, February 10) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 2
- The floods (1877, February 8) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 2
- The recent flood in Nelson (1904, March 26) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 4
- Rivers in high flood: considerable damage done.(1916, November 9) Colonist, p.6
Nelson Floods in the Nelson Photo News:
- Roving camera (1962, February 3)
- Wet weather brings flooding (1962, May 26)
- Flooding follows heavy rain (1964, December 12)
- Combating flash floods (1969, June 28)
- Flooding follows waterless winter (1969, October 18)
- Disastrous flood hits Nelson (1970, September 9)
- Some flood reflections (1970, September 9)
- Nile Street properties flooded (1970, September 19)
- Brook Street was raging Torrent ((1970, September 19)
- More about the floods (1970, October 17)
- Torrential rains bring floods to Nelson City (1970, May 30)
- House demolished (1970, September 19)
- The great cleanup (1970, September 19)
- Nile Street recovers (1970, October 17)
- Scene of Brook Street flood damage (1970, October 17)