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Capital commemorates centenary of city’s worst natural disaster

The influenza pandemic that started in 1918 killed 757 people in Wellington. with most of those people buried in Karori Cemetery. This Sunday at the cemetery the 1918 Influenza Project

will acknowledge of the centenary of this momentous event in the capital’s history.

Ambulances in front of Town Hall REF: natlibgovtnz:emu:PAColl-748969

The 757 people killed by influenza in Wellington were party of the total of 9000 deaths nationwide, and 50 million internationally.

The main breakout occurred between October and December 1918, with New Zealand losing half as many people to the flu in two months, as it did during the whole of WWI.

The flu, thought to have originated on the Western Front, hit Auckland in mid-October, followed quickly by Wellington and Christchurch.

The Armistice on November 11 contributed to the contagion spreading, as everyone gathered together to celebrate the end of a long war.

In the Pacific, Samoa was one of the worst hit with 8,500 deaths due to the epidemic (approximately 22% of the population).

The Wellington City Council, led by Mayor John Luke, was integral to the relief efforts, especially as top medical personnel became incapacitated with the flu themselves.

The Town Hall became the headquarters for the voluntary relief effort – and was the distribution point for food and medicine, including prescribed quantities of spirits which were considered to be a remedy by many local doctors.

Seats were also removed from the Town Hall to make room for beds as it got turned into a temporary hospital.

Trams, ferries, and ships stopped operating, as did hotels, shops, bars, and clubs, and most communal areas were closed – with the city being divided into blocks managed by appointed captains.

Deaths happened so rapidly that local mail trucks, and even the Mayoral car, were used to transport the bodies to Karori Cemetery, where staff needed help digging graves to keep up with the constant flow of corpses arriving.

On 19 November 1918 there were 63 burials at Karori Cemetery in one day.

This Sunday, 18 November, the commemoration event at Karori Cemetery will begin at 11.00am with an opening presentation and launch by Mayor Justin Lester and Hon Grant Robertson, followed by a public talk by Professor Geoffrey Rice, author of two major publications about the epidemic in New Zealand.

Project volunteers will be running tours around the main burial sites at Karori Cemetery, with guides in each of the five areas where people were buried – Anglican, Catholic, Public, Jewish and Services – available to talk about the people who were buried, and the work the 1918 Influenza Project has undertaken to clean and tidy their graves.

There will be an information kiosk located in the Historic (Mortuary) Chapel.

The event runs until 4.00pm and will be repeated next Sunday, 25 November.