Remembering the 1968 flood
NOBODY could imagine on going to bed on Saturday night, August 31, 1968, what they would wake up to the next morning. So when the citizens of Port Elizabeth awoke to some light rain, just after 07:00, they thought it was the perfect day to roll over, snuggle up and have a good Sunday morning snooze.
The fact that most of the population remained indoors, was one of the main reasons for the relatively low number of fatalities, for a disaster of this proportion.
At just before 08:00, the heavens opened, like a storm of Biblical proportions. In just over four hours, between 07:40 and 12:00, a total of 352mm of rain was measured at the Port Elizabeth Airport. Although this is the officially documented figure, the autographic rain gauge at the reservoir in Brunswick Road (Adcockvale) recorded 470mm between 08:00 and 12:00.
This equated to a sustained rainfall intensity of 20 to 30mm per 15 minute period, over this four-hour period. This turned roads and streets into raging rivers that caused wave upon wave of destruction. City fathers had no way of designing a storm water system that could even vaguely cope with this amount of water. Experts claim that this was a flood with a return value of more than 100 if not 1000 years (i.e. would only occur once in 100 if not 1000 years).
By the end of the day, the airport had recorded 429mm and the Adcockvale Reservoir 552mm.
Experts claim that approximately 26 000 megalitres of water was deposited over the city. That equates to almost the entire Churchill Dam (33 000 megalitres) being poured over the city in four hours.
At the time it was reported that damage was estimated to be in the region of R40 million. A projection of the rand value in 1993 (25th anniversary of the event) was put at R604 million. A 2018 projection of the rand value is in excess of R5 billion.
It was amazing, considering that so much rain fell, that only nine people were reported to have died as a direct result of the flood (some reports claim the total was 11). Eight drowned and one was electrocuted, while trying to repair a roof leak of a house in Central. The Provincial Hospital reported treating 55 patients at its casualty section.
Streets were flooded beyond belief, with numerous photographs showing only the top half of double decker busses visible in Main Street (now Govan Mbeki Street) in the North End/Sydenham area.
Although damage of varying degrees were reported from all parts of the city, extensive damage was caused to Albany Road, Brickmakers Kloof, Target Kloof and all areas in the Baakens Valley area. The most visible and memorable images were of the promenade, which was damaged beyond repair and sadly changed the face of the city’s beachfront forever. This occurred when storm water flowed into the Shark River (the little stream in Happy Valley) and turned it into a raging torrent. This washed away the rugby fields at the Boet Erasmus Stadium.
This together with other debris dammed up at the bridge over the Shark River (which, at the time, was all but closed to the sea). The bridge and surrounds were all washed away and/or severely damaged. Gone forever from the face of Port Elizabeth were the bathing houses, the ice-cream parlour and restaurant.
Interesting antidotes and the lighter side
A resident related that on the Saturday night she had made a large pot of curry. She claims that her and her late husband had some friends over and had a very late night, with the drinks flowing freely after consuming the curry. They got to bed very late and were fast asleep when events unfolded. When she eventually awoke, the curry pot was floating past her bed, as her house was flooded to bed level.
However, Forest Hill Drive had a 10 metre wide section missing and part of the cemetery washed away. Bones from the old plague cemetery nearby washed away and children found them. Their parents were naturally horrified, when they brought these bones home.
Many fish (some as heavy as 3kg) were washed out of the North End Lake and were caught by hand in Main Street (now Govan Mbeki Street).
Goldfish from the pond in St George’s were washed away and landed up in a pool under the Crusaders Rugby Club Pavilion.
Many exotic snakes were reported to have died at the city’s snake park, when the heaters failed (due to no electricity) and the temperatures dropped to fatal levels for the snakes.
Twins were born in an ambulance that was bogged down, when part of Standford Road collapsed.
A family had to wait two weeks to bury their mother, as the North End Cemetery remained water logged. The sons went to the cemetery daily to check if the water level had dropped.
The famous heart surgeon Dr Chris Barnard sent a telegram of sympathy to the city. It read “Distressed to hear of floods (stop) sympathy to people of Port Elizabeth (stop)”
Even the Weather Office was affected, with a complete breakdown of communications at the Port Elizabeth Airport. All electronic equipment was affected which resulted in no upper-air ascent for the day.
Hayward, L.Q., and Van den Berg, H.J.C., 1968 Nuusbrief, W.B. Pretoria, 234 , September, pp 157-168
Viviers, J.P., 1993 Weerburo Nuusbrief, W.B. Pretoria, September, pp 15-16
All photographs were donated by the general public and obtained from a variety of publications and include:
The Eastern Province Herald
The Evening Post
The Weekend Post
Die Oosterlig (now Die Burger Oos-Kaap)
The Scope Magazine.