Uncovering Cyclone Bola

Our group (Teresa, Helen, Jack, Spencer, Christina, Erin) examined Cyclone Bola, which occurred in the Pacific Islands in February and March of 1988.

We decided to begin with the connotations of the name “Bola,” seeing as naming and categories have been a significant discussion in the class thus far. Bola is the Spanish and Portuguese for “ball.” Wikipedia lists several instances of the word/name “bola.” Notably are: a volcano in a similar vicinity, a primitive weapon “used to capture animals by entangling their legs” that, when thrown, resembles the motion of a tropical storm, and the fact that many men have the first name Bola, especially in Nigeria. At first we noticed that the category of the “1987–88 South Pacific cyclone season” didn’t seem to follow the same naming technique as described in previous blog posts, because two A names (Agi and Anne) are listed. However, we soon learned that Fiji and Australia take turns in naming local storms, depending on who tracks the storm first, which led to this faux discrepancy. We also found it notable that Bola is a male name, seeing as so far in the class we’ve mostly covered feminine hurricanes and the complexity of “Mother Nature.” Lastly, it’s worth noting that the name Bola was retired from the system because of the severity of the cyclone.

Cyclone Bola began as a Category 1 tropical storm north of Fiji on February 23, 1988. By February 28, it had gone from Category 2 to 3 and reached peak wind velocity of 195 km/hr as it passed over the archipelago nation of Vanuatu in a clockwise loop. By this point, it had reached Category 4 (equivalent to North American Category 3) strengths but then began weakening as it moved south. Bola then transitioned into an extratropical storm when it hit the North Island of New Zealand on March 4. From March 7th-12th, Bola “began slowly filling, meaning the low-pressure area associated with Bola was losing its identity.” On March 12th it was absorbed by a “stationary trough.” The Vanuatu Meteorological Service reports that “tropical cyclone Bola is well remembered in Vanuatu because of its very erratic track (it did two clockwise loops, one north of Efate, one south).” We feel this commentary about the cyclonic loops, predictable and unpredictable at the same time, bring to mind patterns of churning and cycling. While a clear (albeit convoluted) “beginning” and “during” can be traced, it’s hard not to question the “ending” of the cyclone because of the aftermath (e.g. PTSD explained later).  


When Cyclone Bola churned through the Southwest Pacific with 100 km/hr winds, Vanuatu, New Zealand and Fiji were within the path of the storm’s circumference. Many of the people who call these islands home, have weathered and adapted to the circumstances their climate produces. For decades, “The majority of dwellings are traditional Melanesian houses with earth or coral floors, no glass windows, and palm, bamboo, or cane walls and roofing,” these dwelling structures are light in weight and can be blown away in the event of a cyclone. With no windows to build pressure within these structures, it makes them less susceptible to damage, and easier to construct again in the cycle of rebuilding. Heavy rainfall, with some areas receiving half their annual rainfall within the span of a few days, caused flooding and erosion especially in the Waipoa River. When the river flooded, part of the state highway was washed away, which was a major route for evacuation. These islands are in a high-risk area for cyclones, and each year the people who live there prepare for another cyclone season. After Cyclone Bola’s destructive course over Vanuatu, New Zealand, and Fiji, the name was retired from use to accommodate the sensitivity of the people it affected and those who remember it.  


Cyclone Bola was considered one of the “costliest” cyclone to affect New Zealand. This language of “economics” in terms of monetary loss/gain is thought-provoking because we, societally, see an inherent link between economics and natural disasters. To specifically think in terms of human impact, there were three direct fatalities: Rutu (Ruth) Maurirere, Nancy Carroll and Harry Sutherland, who drowned in the floodwaters when desperately trying to tow their stuck car. There was also one indirect fatality noted, as an elderly male in Oakura Bay attempted to salvage his neighbor’s water tank, but experienced a heart attack and died during the peak of the storm. This “samaritan act” brings to mind the balance of good and evil in the wake of a storm (as portrayed by the “Snakes and Ladders” map in Unfathomable City), and also causes one to question the exchange between human life and material possessions. Altogether, these deaths do not even begin to exhaust the scope of human impact. In a study done five years after the storm, “12% of respondents could be classified as post-traumatic stress disorder cases and 17% were classified with high psychological distress scores.” This cyclone serves as an example of how PTSD can be a result of any significantly stressful event – not just active soldiers or assault victims.

We also see how the course concepts of the performance of memory and forgetting can be applied to people’s accounts of Cyclone Bola. In exploring the forums of New Zealand farmers, the comments at the bottom of the page proved to show multiple different versions of how living through the hurricane felt. We were slightly shocked by these comments, but then we realized that everyone is entitled to their own individual reactions and feelings. Some examples included: “i loved that cyclone, bola got me a week off primary school. happy days,” “One fond memory is the comradery built with previously unknown neighbours as we all pitched in and helped each other with the huge clean up tasks – friendships and a strong sense of community grew from this tragedy.” and “seems like things go round in cycles to me.” You can look at more comments on articles here.

The Māori people native to New Zealand were also deeply impacted by the storm. The Māori live in large traditional communities known as iwi, and the second largest iwi in the country, called Ngāti Porou, was devastated by cyclone Bola. Ngāti Porou is home to over 70,000 Māori people, and most were evacuated to find safety in the days of flooding. 900 millimeters of rain fell in just 72 hours, which is almost a year’s worth. The impact on Ngāti Porou was especially overwhelming when considering the economic challenges that the community was already experiencing: The area had especially low employment, crumbling infrastructure, and a notable lack of government financial support for farmers. The combination of the destructive storm and the poor state of the area resulted in a slow and grueling recovery that still affects the people to this day.

We also believe that the binary of human/environmental impact can be slightly constricting. We found that Cyclone Bola also had a big impact on animals. Farmers were often advised to burn their sheep prior to the flooding. One farmer says, “in hindsight [burning] was a stupid idea because their wool was soaked and did not really burn. It was a horrible smell. It stayed with us for a long time.” Even the animals that were not burned often did not fare well in the flooding. For example, one farmer reported that he lost over 2300 sheep.

The environment was also incredibly altered by Cyclone Bola. The erosion of the land progressed rapidly after a large amount of rainfall (600-1000 mm). The environmental damage also was especially devastating, given the timing of the storm, which hit right before the harvest of the lowland crops. Meteorologist Erick Brenstrum said, “So much horticultural produce was washed out to sea that fruit was still being dredged from the ocean floor in fishing nets several months afterwards.”

One positive environmental impact is a direct response to the loss of crops and the erosion of farmland in New Zealand. Prior to Cyclone Bola, flood management in New Zealand was largely left to regional and local authorities. As a reaction to the intense environmental damage, New Zealand enacted new flood protocols in regard to forest conservation and preventing erosion on a federal level, focusing on sustainability. One outcome of the storm was that 70% of pastoral lands lost their grass due to shallow mudslides. The ones that remained had forest cover, leading to the creation of new protocol regarding protection against erosion. Disaster relief funds for flooding are now being used to plant trees in erosion-prone areas. Trees help to stabilize the land, sustainably providing protection against flooding. Between 1989 and 1994, 15,000 hectares of land was covered in protection forests. These forests cannot be logged for at least 25 years. So, New Zealand established both protected forests and protection against erosion, a dual performance that benefits everyone.


Like any significant event in modern times, documentation of Bola did take form in photography. A Google Image search brings up several photo galleries, mostly black and white photos. The photos seem to mostly depict physical destruction rather than loss of human or animal life. In general, we did not find the photos to be as shockingly tragic as seen in other cases (such as When the Levees Broke). However, much of the art we found seems to have emerged more recently rather than in the immediate wake of the cyclone.

Most prominently was Christian Nicolson’s 2011 exhibition “Little Bigger Surfer,” which takes explicit influence from Cyclone Bola. It is a series of 24 acrylic paintings that tell stories about New Zealand’s beach-culture. A story is told over the course of the exhibition, visually as well as explicitly, with the majority of the paintings having first-person passages, either handwritten or in typeface, that provide an anecdote or commentary related to the painting’s content.

The exhibition paints a picture of Nicolson’s relationship with the beach, (presumably) from his early memories through Cyclone Bola. The exhibition starts with fond or notable memories, such as “Wetsuit Disco Man” recalling wearing a wetsuit to a school dance to help him pick up girls, and “My First Shark” telling the story of the first time he saw a shark while surfing, and fell off his board in an attempt to get away. A majority of paintings in the middle depict abstract scenery of some importance to Nicolson, such as “Surftrip 1990” showing a car driving down a long empty road, and “Baileys Beach School Trip” with several shadowy surfers standing on an abstract red and black beach.

The exhibition ends, however, with indirect and explicit references to Cyclone Bola. For example, “Surf Waits for No Man,” in scratched and frantic handwriting, asks “What do you mean your going surfing!” on an uneven white and red background that almost induces the anxiety it is trying to convey. The improper “your” makes it seem like a frantic email being sent to dissuade someone from trying to surf in dangerous waters.

Of particular importance to Cyclone Bola and this course are the final two paintings in the exhibition – “My Leg-rope” and “Cyclone Bola.” “My Leg-rope” shows a surfer’s ankle harness dripping in ominous red paint, with duplicated typeface overlapping itself at the bottom. The text is hard to read, but it describes a narrator being dragged 30 feet through the water by the leg-rope of his friend’s surfboard. This narrative reminds me the collection of poems on Luther B from Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler. Being tied down by something that should instead keep someone safe seems to lead to a power struggle with the destructive force of water.

Cyclone Bola” is one of Nicolson’s simplest paintings yet serves as a fitting end to the exhibition. The painting has a neon yellow and orange background with scraped paint that makes it seem as if it was washed away or had been painted on a piece of wreckage from the cyclone. The texture also reminds me of construction zones’ recycled wooden walls, used to enclose the wreckage or working site. Huge text saying “cyclone bola” takes up the majority of the foreground, and written quite small between the two words is “you had to be there.” “Cyclone Bola” directly reminds us about the performance of memory, literally and figuratively asking the reader to look closely at the cyclone in order to not forget its significance. In the context of the exhibition, the final painting asks us to acknowledge the performance of memory, while the rest of the paintings are some part of Nicolson’s memories as associated with the cyclone through his relationship with the beach. Nicolson’s exhibition finds a way to empiricize his experiences with the beach in a way that conveys the emotions he feels regarding beach-life and how Cyclone Bola is a notable event in his relationship with beach-life.

Another work, which brings up the debate around “what is art,” is a YouTube video created by a student in 2014. The monologue “Tremendous Bola” appears to be a school project for a preteen using a green screen and teleprompter. She is very enthusiastic in her role of a “search and rescue team member” reporting in the middle of the storm. The video seems notable seeing as much of the material we are uncovering about this storm is from Kiwis who recount their experience of the storm as schoolchildren in the 80s. This, too, plays into ideas of the “performance of memory.”

Another reaction to Cyclone Bola was the creation of the Gisborne International Music Festival. It was founded by a music and sports retailer called Ian Dunsmore in Gisborne, New Zealand after the storm hit. Dunsmore wanted something positive to happen for the kids in the area and thought a music competition would be a good way to foster community. 20 years later, it is now a huge event, attracting musicians from around the world. Participants often go on to play in national and professional orchestras. This brings up the idea of impact and the performance of memory- Cyclone Bola has indirectly impacted thousands of musicians in a positive way. In creating the Gisborne International Music Festival and continuing the tradition, the memory of Cyclone Bola is performed, though current participants may not know it. In this way, Gisborne has been able to positively remember and move on from the storm and indeed create a positive international impact.


Overall, we feel like the experience of researching and writing this post shed light on aspects we have not discussed in class but were more comfortable working with because of previous material. Specifically, it’s important to recognize impacts in places that are usually not examined. In the United States, hurricane names like Katrina or Sandy are instantly recognizable by everyone, even those who weren’t directly impacted by the storm itself. However, before starting this post, none of us had heard of Cyclone Bola (or even some of the nations that it affected, like Vanuatu), despite it being considered one of the “costliest storms” in the Pacific (and having the name removed from the system indicates its widespread impact). In researching Bola, we are reminded of the importance of remembering that other places are affected by hurricanes too, though the course may focus only on the United States. 

As described in many other blog posts, climate change is a major conversation, and island nations are particularly vulnerable despite the fact that their contribution is relatively minimal. Sea levels rising, increasingly violent weather, and erosion from increased precipitation are causing island nations to literally plan for moving their country. Cyclone Bola caused the first instance of “climate refugees” from a small island.

We also discussed the dangers in engaging in conversations relating to “comparative damage,” which we defined as the idea that some damage is worse than others, using superlatives to “rank” pain or damage. This need to categorize or give certain precedence is something we have been conditioned to do, but we thought it might be more important to just acknowledge that any damage was done.


How to end such a comprehensive look at Cyclone Bola? The cyclone itself is still not over; impacts both positive and negative continue to affect New Zealand, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and our own studies into this storm have only just scratched the surface. The sheer length of this post requires an ending, but who knows, perhaps we’ll cycle back to Cyclone Bola before the end of the semester.

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