Tuesday, 9 April 2013

45 years on—10th April 1968.

Forty-five years ago I was a first year student at Victoria University of Wellington, studying Botany, Zoology, and Chemistry.  On April 10th, I woke up early, before seven, to the howling of the wind and the house creaking and shaking.  It was a very strong single-story house – Dad designed it with earthquakes in mind and the builder claimed it was “overbuilt” – so it didn’t creak often.  I don’t recall if I was worried, but I was certainly surprised by the strength of the wind, the constant roar of noise, and the shaking.  In the hallway outside my bedroom I met Dad on his way back from the bathroom.  He told me the inter-island ferry Wahine was aground on Barrett’s reef, but that everyone was safe.  The wind is said to have peaked that day at 275 km/h.  NIWA has published a catalogue of weather extremes, damage, injury, and loss of life that day.  Our house in Linden was at a similar altitude and exposure to Kelburn, where they recorded just under 200 km/h.

At breakfast we debated about going in to work (Dad) and university (me).  It was probably after breakfast that the power went off, ruling out our usual transport, the electric trains.  Then a neighbor called to say her husband had tried to drive into town and had turned back because it was too windy on the motorway.  We decided to sit tight.

I guess it was mid-morning when the roof blew off the house next door but one.  For some reason, Dad and I were in the laundry watching the storm from there, so we saw the iron sheets lift off one by one and fly tumbling through the air towards us.  Dad had the presence of mind to get me out of the room and close the door; however no iron hit the house, but it did demolish our fence where some sheets embedded end-on 5mm into the wood.  Dad and I dashed across the intervening section to help our neighbors evacuate the house.  I foolishly sprinted through the swirling iron; he sensibly ducked around the back out of its flight path. 
Minor damage at home, 10 April 1968
At some stage during the morning our 5m Norfolk pine (Araucaria excelsa: Dad used to call it the Alka-Seltzer) tipped over at about 30˚ off the vertical.  We watched a tree across the road thrash itself out of the ground and then roll end-over-end down the street like a giant tumbleweed, never to be seen again.

Some time in the early afternoon everything went calm.  We thought it was the eye of the storm, and expected the wind to pick up again from the north, but it was all over.  I don’t recall hearing more about the Wahine until the TV news that night.  My memories of that are all mixed up with what I’ve heard since.  Fifty-four people died in that storm, 51 on the Wahine.  The display at Wellington's Museum of City & Sea captures it all; it still makes me tear up.

Students who did turn up for lectures had an exciting morning, they told me later.  Prof Gordon had valiantly tried to give the Botany I lecture, but abandoned it when slates from the roof of the Hunter Building started crashing through the lecture room windows.
Smashed pine trees, Colonial Knob, Wellington, 1968
 The following weekend was Easter, and I went tramping in the Tararuas with two friends.  Another friend couldn’t come because his cross country running club had volunteered to search the south coast for bodies.  On Cone Saddle we encountered a whole beech forest tipped over.  We ended up having to climb among the fallen trees to get through, sometimes walking along logs that were 5m above the ground. 

At home, we fixed the fence and pulled the Norfolk pine upright again.  For me, the day had been pretty benign really, but I still think about it every time 10 April comes around.  For many people, I guess life took a sudden and unexpected turn that day.  People survive a lot worse—Christchurch earthquakes, the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, let alone the blitz, Dresden, or Hiroshima—but these things all leave their mark.

No comments:

Post a Comment