A PDF version of this paper with photos are available for download HERE.
In 1878 Cape Government Railways engineers were working feverishly to connect Cape Town to the diamond fields by rail. Eighty kilometers beyond Touws River in the area called “Moordenaars Karoo”, the rail route passed over the almost dry Buffalo River (“Buffelsrivier”), with a steep hill Fischkuil-se-kop, on the Kimberley side bank. Because trains can’t climb steep slopes, the railway engineers were forced to design a very high railway bridge, far out of proportion to the size of the river. In 1881 a little town was laid out on the northern banks of the river, on the slopes of the hill. This town, originally called Buffelsrivier, but later changed to Laingsburg, has been an oasis for travelers ever since.
Years later when road engineers were building the N1, they looked at the railway bridge and thought the railway engineers had been mad to build such high arches for a puny river like the Buffalo. Consequently the road bridge they designed for the N1 hardly rose above the plain. But the designers of the railway bridge built better than they knew, for once every 100 years there comes a flood bigger than all before it.
Television was still a novelty in South Africa when rain started falling gently over the head waters of the Buffalo River on 25th January 1981. The local farmers were at first grateful for the rain; the desolate semi-desert was parched and dry and even hardy sheep were struggling to survive. But the bluish shale soil of the area doesn’t absorb much water, and most of the rain drained straight into the river. A six meter high wall of water build up and ripped through Laingsburg, carrying away people, houses and the N1 road bridge. The Buffalo River that flows North-South through the town, bursts its banks. The confluence of the Wilgehout, Baviaans and Buffalo Rivers, resulted in large waves near the railway bridge. The streets running parallel to the river acted as swift flowing unobstructed water courses for the flood. This meant that residents could not cross these streets even when the water was less than a meter deep. Trapped by the fast running and swiftly rising water, the only course of action was for people to seek refuge on the rooftops of their houses, until these too were swept away by the flood.
425 mm of rain fell in two days. (24th and 25th of January 1981. The average annual rainfall is 175 mm) 104 people died and 184 houses were destroyed. Only 21 houses were undamaged. High-water marks are today indicated on lamp posts. Buildings that survived were the Dutch Reformed Church, one of the few buildings that remained standing. Others were the railway station, Dutch Reformed church hall, the DRC Mission and the Lutheran Mission Churches, The Magistrates Court and Post Office, as well as a few private residences also survived. But almost all were badly damaged. Residents of the old age home (build just above the river and completely washed away by the flood) were torn from the grasp of people assisting and carried away by the flood.
Fifty six of the 1981 victims were never found - presumed swallowed by the silt of the Floriskraal dam.
The search and rescue mission started at 14h55 when the police duty officer at Beaufort West was telephonically advised that a flood disaster had hit Laingsburg. The officer immediately raced to Laingsburg to investigate where after he informed the Police Divisional Commissioner of the situation in the town. Several units of the police were flown to Laingsburg to assist amongst them members of the Special Task Force that was specifically trained and equipped to deal with such situations. Approximately one hundred houses disappeared while silt piled up several meters deep, rendering rescue work almost impossible. At the time it was estimated that 119 persons were missing. The primary task of the police was to search for and rescue survivors, to search for and recover bodies, to draw up a register of missing persons and the deceased, to prevent plundering, provide emergency help, visit farms isolated by the flood, answer inquiries from elsewhere and policing in general. By allocating specific tasks to specific persons, optimum utilization of the available manpower and by co-ordinating the functions of the Police and the S A Defence Force, all functions could be performed satisfactorily.
Rescue operations commenced soon after the arrival of the police, and the first survivors and bodies were found. A daughter of a family, was found alive several kilometers from Laingsburg in the Floriskraal Dam and taken to safety and care. Several other persons were picked up by helicopter as well and taken to hospital for treatment. On 27 January 1981, Brigadier Genis of the S.A. Police was appointed as overall commander to enable the establishment of an Action Committee consisting of the following sub-committees:
A Safety Committee consisting of members of the South African Police and the South African Defence Force to take care of primary safety.
A Housing Committee to provide housing.
A Committee to provide food.
A Committee to provide power, water and sanitation.
A Committee to deal with the provision of clothing.
A Committee to attend to the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of Laingsburg.
Meanwhile the Defence Force send units in haste to the disaster area, erecting tents to accommodate the close on 120 homeless inhabitants. A medical doctor of Laingsburg who miraculously survived the flood, and the District Surgeon of Prins Albert, assisted by doctors and staff of the Defence Force, treated the survivors. (The role that the hospital played was discussed in a separate article on the SAWDIS Blog.)
By 27 January 1981, 23 survivors as well as 11 bodies have been found along the river. At that stage 147 policeman under the command of Brigadier Genis, were involved in rescue and mopping-up operations and with the assistance of eight Air Force helicopters, members of the public and the Metro Emergency Services, the river course, collapsed houses and buildings were thoroughly searched for further bodies and survivors.
On the arrival, the S.A. Police Special Task Force was sent to the Floriskraal Dam to dive in search of bodies. Their task was largely alleviated by the arrival the same day of a diving unit of the South African Navy who joined the men of the Task Force. Meanwhile drums, refrigerators, fencing posts and other items started washing out to sea at the mouth of the Gouritz River and the police organized the local farmers to assist in collecting the goods. Considerable damage was also caused in Ladismith (Cape) as the Buffalo River, which flows past Laingsburg, also flows past Ladismith and later becomes the Gourtiz River. The flood consequently destroyed all vineyards, fruit trees, animals and ostriches on farms along the river. On one farm alone 50 head of cattle were carried away by the water. The police also rendered the necessary assistance in that area. Only on the 29 January 1981 could the police release a complete list of persons reported missing and presumed drowned. It indicated the true extent of the disaster. The list of 125 persons included the names of the local clergyman, Reverend D.R. Jacobs, the church warden, Mr Marthinus Barnard, the Postmaster and his family, the manager of the Wimpy Bar and his wife, two police families and the wife of the town clerk, Mrs A. Mans.
A new problem cropped up in the form of property theft from the heaps of rubbish piled up by the flood. The police were however vigilant. Within the first eight days following the disaster nine persons of different ages and sexes had been arrested. The attempted looting was a sure sign that life was resuming its normal course and that normality was once again demanding increasing attention by the police.
By 6 February 1981 the Navy Unit could withdraw and on the 10 February 1981 helicopter patrols ceased. On 2 March 1981 the police announced that 47 identified bodies and 16 unidentified bodies has been found since 25 January and that 70 persons were still missing. Constant cordial co-operation between the South African Police and the Defence Force, Air Force and Navy, contributed greatly to the success of the operation. The general public also contributed a major share towards facilitating the task of the Police and engendered much gratitude.
The Laingsburg flood is known as the worst flood in South African history. Many heroic deeds and tales of pluck and courage testifying to the bravery of the inhabitants of Laingsburg on the day of the great flood. However for the scope of this article, these brave deeds will not be mentioned here and will form part of another article at a later stage. The cause of this devastating flood can be attributed to a low pressure system that to put it in “laymans” terms got left behind. The Jet Stream shifted to fast to pick up the low pressure system. So it is just cutoff by itself. Thus the low has nothing to move or guide it. Cut off lows can sit in the same place for days or longer until it is picked up by the Jet stream again. Because of this cutoff low just sitting in one place flooding can become a big issue.
The Laingsburg flood (January 1981) is a good example of a flood caused by a cut-off low. Before 1981 the greatest flooding of the Buffalo River on record (in 1925) had had a flow of just 742 m3 per second, and there was no hint in the intervening half-century that a flood could ever reach the extraordinary discharge of 5 700 m3 per second recorded in 1981! Another contributing factor to the disaster was that people build the town in or to close to the “dry river bed” of the Buffalo River, without realizing the danger of a flash flood. The impact of this tragedy resounded throughout South Africa. The nation was speechless, bewildered and stunned. Most of the effected houses were built below the previously known flood levels. Disbelief was among the residents that a disaster could threaten their lives so swiftly.
After the flood the town was restored and today there is no sign of the “Day of the Buffalo”. Although Laingsburg seldom get rain, when it rains a flood is always the biggest fear of the community, with good reason. Since then the area had a few floods but with no lives lost.
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