THE LAINGSBURG FLOOD ~ THE DAY OF THE BUFFELS RIVER

25 JANUARY 1981

 

The Laingsburg flood of 25 January 1981 is known as the most serious disaster in the history of South Africa.  On Friday, Saturday  and Sunday the 25th rain fell continuously in and around Laingsburg, a small town in the Karoo between Cape Town and Beaufort West.  At first the rain was gentle as a result of a low pressure system.  But from Saturday afternoon to Sunday a high pressure system brought heavy thunder showers to the catchment area.  Up to 425 mm rainfall was recorded that week-end, whereas the normal rainfall per annum is only 175 mm.

 

By 08:00 on the Sunday morning the Buffels River, on whose banks the town is built, was in flood and overflowing into the town.  Simultaneously there was a confluence of two rivers, the Baviaans and the Wilgerhout, flowing from the area to the north known as the Moordenaars Karoo, which caused a high volume of water to accumulate at one time. This water entered the main stream just in front of the railway bridge towards the south of the town causing a natural blockage.  Pressure against the railway bridge is estimated to have been 8000 tons per second. The level of the Buffels River rose dramatically at about 12:00 and by 14:00 the town (CBD) was under water.

 

Residents of Laingsburg, who were used to seeing the Buffels River in flood from time to time, thought that it would soon subside again, not realizing that this was a devastating flood that would hit the town with masses of water coming from an extensive catchment area.  Moreover, the railway bridge and the road bridge over the N1 caused a huge obstruction as trees, plants, rocks, animals and many other objects blocked the flow of the river.  Within seconds, the town was turned into a dam.  People climbed onto the roofs of their houses or into trees and fled to higher ground wherever possible, but everything happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that many lives were lost.  When the gravel embankments leading to the bridges gave way, the water ran at a tremendous speed carrying everything away.  In the blink of an eye, houses, people, almost the whole town disappeared.

 

The loss of life in Laingsburg was a hundred and four men, women and children.  A hundred and eighty five houses, a home for the aged, school hostels, four rondawels and twenty-three business premises were destroyed.  Survivors of the flood tell stories of how they were washed down river, some clinging to anything that would float, how they clambered to safety along the banks or found themselves floating in the Floriskraal Dam among heaps of debris, 21 km from town.  The number of bodies that were recovered was 32 and 72 were never found.

 

The flood water level is recorded by signs at various places in the town today, including the inside wall of the Dutch Reformed Church.  It is remarkable to note how the survivors of this disaster recovered after their terrible shock and how they worked together to restore the town. In this they were helped not only by an indomitable spirit but by their willingness to share and to assist one another.  Many did voluntary work : There were first aid workers, those who cooked meals in a general camp kitchen every day, the town planners, those who offered counsel and many others.  Business owners were generous:  To mention a few, Wimpy handed out food to the survivors and Solomon’s General Dealer opened its doors to all to take what was needed.  The owners of the Laingsburg Hotel provided refreshments to the voluntary workers.

 

Help streamed in from sympathetic people all over the country and a fund was started to assist the victims.  Official help could only reach Laingsburg on the Monday after the flood since the infrastructure had been washed away.  Government supported the flood victims with temporary housing and later built  new houses, a sport complex and a new school hostel and restored the business centre for a total amount of R10 million.  “Die Burger” and other newspapers started disaster funds which brought in R3 million, the Lions helped to build a home for the aged and the Red Cross gave generous help.

Laingsburg Flood 1981

 

25 January 1981 is recognized as one of the biggest natural disasters in the history of South Africa.

QUESTIONS OFTEN ASKED

How long did it take for the flood to happen?

According to local residents, there was no indication of a flood that week-end although it rained heavily.  On Sunday the 25th the town was suddenly swept away within six to seven hours, after which the weather cleared.

 

How long did it take to reconstruct the town?

Reconstruction and planning began immediately and took about eight years.

 

What services were provided for the recovery of Laingsburg?

Initially the Army, Red Cross, Lions, Salvation Army, DR Church and other relief organizations stepped in to help together with friends and family from neighbouring towns.

The national government’s recovery plan for Laingsburg entailed the replanning of a water supply pipeline, a new sewage system, telephones, electric cables, streets and roads etc. which took two years to complete. A flood line for the next 1000 years was proclaimed below which no houses were allowed to be built.

 

What was done to commemorate the disaster?

There is a cemetery with a wall plaque bearing the names of some of the victims.

An excellent Flood Museum has been established thanks to the dedication and enthusiasm of the residents of the town, in particular Me Francis van Wyk.  Full documentation of the event is available as well as a website – www. infolaingsburg

There is a flood route that takes you through the town and out along the course of the Buffels River as well as an art route created by the students of the Art Dept. of the University of Stellenbosch.

 

 

What effect did the flood have on the residents?

Total shock!

The flood has had a lasting effect on the population of Laingsburg.  Many lost their lives and many have lost family and friends.  It has been difficult to overcome the tragedy but Laingsburgers helped themselves by helping one another.

 

Materially, some people may be better off than before the flood because new development has brought better infrastructure etc. to the town.  The memory of what happened will probably never be erased, as is evident from the reaction of residents whenever the Buffels River comes down in flood.

 

An eyewitness report:

“My most vivid memory is the way the houses toppled over.  You hear a cracking sound, you see a movement and sometimes the house turns on its foundation so that the front door faces the opposite direction.  The moment the house falls, a column of dust escapes into the air reminding one of an explosion.  Next moment there is another cracking sound, another about-turn, another dust explosion, and another house is gone.”

 

How were the flood victims compensated?

Those who did not have insurance, received a monetary compensation from government for their loss.

An executive committee was formed in the town to administer the funds received.

 

What measures have been taken to prevent the repetition of such a flood?

The chances of it happening again are said to be 1 in a 1000.

Disaster management at the municipality sees to it that the water level is regulated when the rivers are full.  The river bed is cleared regularly of unwanted vegetation.

Government, the Province and local municipality have compiled a basic disaster management structure which is available to all towns.

SYNOPSIS: LAINGSBURG FLOOD

Sunday 25 January 1981

 

CAUSES OF FLOOD AND FLOOD DAMAGE

1.      Heavy rainfall (425mm) in the catchment area from Friday to Sunday.

2.      Confluence of three rivers at railway bridge in southern part of the town.

3.      Gravel embankments to the road and rail bridges gave way under pressure of 8 000 tons of water at height of flood (18:00).

4.      Speed of river water thus released meant that a suction was formed pulling people and objects helplessly along and causing extensive damage.

 

AFTERMATH

Road bridge :  Makeshift road restored by Tuesday evening.

Railway bridge : Railway gangs started repairs first light on Monday.  By Wednesday the first train crossed the bridge.

 

DAMAGE ASSESSMENT

Loss of life : 104 people

Loss of property : 185 houses, 23 business premises, 2 hostels, a home for the aged and all possessions involved.

Total loss of infrastructure :    Sewage system

                                               Water supply pipeline

                                               Overhead electric cables

                                               Streets and roads

                                               Buildings

                                               Telephone lines

National Government took charge because of the enormity of the disaster, coordinating the relief fund, repairing the infrastructure and planning a new town.

 

BUDGET FRAMEWORK

R3,7 million for temporary housing

R7 million for rebuilding 165 houses @ R465 per square metre

Total about R10 million including the CBD and sports grounds

 

The relief fund amounted to R5 million, half of which was public donations collected through newspapers.

 

RESTORATION EXPENSES :

Laingsburg only

R7,3 million for state-built houses

R1,7 million given to owner builders

Building contractors : Holtzhauzen & Hugo (Paarl) with 16 artisans and a workforce of 400.  Building sand and stone had to be brought in from 30 km away.

Project completed 1983.

R1,1 million for hostel and school renovations

7 000 tons of mud removed

Work completed by 1984.

 

CLEANING AND LEVELLING OF THE TOWN

R0,6 million included a dyke on river bank as precautionary measure

Contractors : D.Decker & Co.  Completed within 17 months

R3,2 million for storm water and road restoration

R1 million for water purification system

R880,000 for sewage system

 

SUMMARY

R9,3 million was budgeted for Laingsburg alone but reached well over R10 million.

Total spent on all flood relief for Montague, Touwsriver and Laingsburg, coordinated by various departments : R5,417 million

 

PRECAUTIONARY MEASURES

The municipality of Laingsburg keeps a constant watch to ensure that the river bed is kept clean of debris and alien vegetation.

 

The flood level has been carefully recorded and there is a clear line below which no residential homes are allowed to be built.  Businesses may be established there however since these may be quickly evacuated if necessary.

List of Flood Victims

 

The identified victims were:

 

Tobias Alberts

Marthinus Barnard

Susanna Destroo

Magdalena Drotskie

Beatrix du Toit

Susanna du Toit

Pieter du Toit

Booi Gous

Jeanette Groenewald

Willem Grootboom

Hester Nortier

Grace Johannes

Hendrik Janse van Rensburg

Johanna Janse van Rensburg

Jeanette Koen

Martha Koen

Jan Kühn

Catharina Lane

William Lane

Helene le Roux

Johanette Lingenfelder

Maria Muller

Dirk Nel

Jacobus Olivier

Catharina Pietersen

Piet Rooi

Alwina Smith

Jan Swart

Susan Taylor

Carlo van den Berg

Johannes Victor

 

The missing victims were:

 

Jacob Adams

Johanna Alberts

Moses Alexander

Johannes Ambros

Phillipus Arends

Anita Balie

Helena Barnard

Jacomina Beukes

Catharina Botes

Hester Botes

Dirk Claaste

Johannes Conradie

Francois Wilhelmus Destroo

Babatjie Diko

Jane Diko

Edeka Diko

Ertjie Diko

Hilda Diko

John Diko

Lena Diko

Nomvula Diko

Sina Diko

Pieter du Plessis

Magdalena Erasmus

Susanna Erasmus

Lena Gertse

Alfred Goodman

Isak Gouws

Johanna Haasbroek

George Horne

Anna Human

Daniël Malan Jacobs

Jan Kammies

Klaas Klein

Anna Knight

Pieter Koen

Pieter Koen (jnr)

Barbara Kühn

Jan Laban

Letta Lingenfelder

Johan Lingenfelder

Martha Lottering

Anna Mans

Florida Mathews

Pietro Meintjies

Maria Nel

Johannes Nortier

Magrietha Pool

Johnny Pretorius

Johannes Smith

April Solomons

Jacob Stadler

Margaret Berg

Susanna Swanepoel

Mark Taylor

Elizabeth Theron

Pietro Meintjies

Maria Nel

Johannes Nortier

Magrietha Pool

Johnny Pretorius

Johannes Smith

April Solomons

Jacob Stadler

Margaret Berg

Susanna Swanepoel

Mark Taylor

Elizabeth Theron

Elsie Theron

Hester Theron

Johannes Theron

Apols Tieties

Gerhard van den Berg

Hendrina van den Berg

Jacob van den Berg

Jacomina van der Vyver

Johannes van Deventer

Johanna van Wyk

Karel Visagie

Stephen Whittaker

Willem Willemse

Alexander Williams

Bernard Williams

Laingsburg Tourism  |   Private Bag X4  |  Laingsburg 6900

Tel: 023 5511868   |  Mail: laingsburgtourism@telkomsa.net