Most of us Aspies are suspicious of the term “raining cats and dogs.” It creates unfortunate imagery. To say it ran “rivers and lakes” sounds more accurate and that scenario unfolds from time to time…
One memorable Sunday, the 1st September 1968 (which is known as Spring Day and celebrated by wearing summer attire when it falls on a weekday but is invariably more cold and windy than the preceding winter days) the heavens opened in a deluge, cascading 429 mm (16 inches) of rain on the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, South Africa in a single day, turning the small stream known as the Baakens River, which divides the city into north and south, into a raging torrent sweeping cars and caravans seawards in a tumbling mass of metallic chaos.
Daybreak brought overcast conditions and the sun was hidden by ominous clouds which would soon break open with more water than ever before recorded in the city’s history.
All over the battered and sodden city, suburban yards dammed up with water as the drainage channels filled with debris and couldn’t cope with the flow. Children, who never seem too affected by the weather, paddled and played in the new garden pools.
The weather office reported clouds building up to a height of 40 000 feet and acting as a huge funnel as water got picked up at the top and spewed out at the bottom. The word cloudburst may have been described as an understatement on this rare occasion!
In a number of suburbs distraught residents were forced to watch helplessly as their belongings floated downstream.
The effects of the flood were most visible along the banks of the Baakens, which only had bridges across it at four points (namely the coast road between the city centre and Humewood Beach, Brickmaker’s Kloof, Target Kloof, and the low level Third Avenue Dip). The wide Willam Moffet expressway was only completed in 1971 with a much higher bridge than those at the other points) Thus transport between north and south on that rainy 1968 day was impossible without a detour of some forty kilometres, bypassing the short river (some 10 or 15km in length) by using the Greenbushes road outside the city limits.
The local news announcer was unable to get to the studio due to the blocked roads and had to call a colleague, who lived just a few hundred metres from the studio, to stand in for him. This colleague had to put his hands over his nose and mouth in order to breathe during the brief but exciting walk to the broadcasting studio. It’s not often that one is in imminent danger of drowning while walking in the rain! He sent a telex* to the head office in Johannesburg briefly explaining the situation in the city. (*A telex is one of those cumbersome objects which have become obsolete, like ribbon typewriters and dial-with-the-fingers telephones, things which older folk remember but products of the 21st century won’t know how to use…)
He sat alone in the studio shivering in his underpants; the rest of his clothes totally soaked through, and tried to get a response from the four telephones which were all out of order but could occasionally raise a local crossed line. One of the people he got through to asked him to please hang up as he was trapped on his roof and trying to reach emergency services! Around noon a group of four high ranking police officers, just as wet through, as well as a vehicle full of traffic officers, pulled up at the studio to inform the guy in his damp briefs that the city was in crisis and citizens could only be reached by radio. This announcer played a vital role in communicating with many panicked residents on that memorable day.
It was only on Tuesday that some of this announcer’s colleagues were able to make it to the studios, so he was pretty bushed by the time relief was at hand. He subsequently took a good number of black and white photos of the aftermath, which were later digitized. I’ve borrowed a few to use in this blog to show some of the damage.
Fortunately, only five deaths were reported. About thirty people needed to be rescued from the swirling floodwaters.
A few years ago the city experienced heavy rains but nothing quite like 1968. Even so, at least a kilometre of a Lakeside Road a short distance from the city was underwater for several months when the small lake which gives it its name burst its banks. They had to change the route of the long summer training runs because these runs are not meant to include swimming.