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 enquiries 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.
(Click on images for larger view.)
IMPORTANT NOTE: Do you have images, photos, documents, newspapers, magazines or books of the Laingsburg Flood? If you do have any of the above that relates to the Laingburg Flood and would like to preserve it for future generations, send it to the SAWDOS who will publish, photograph and archive the info and images on the SAWDOS Blog. The SAWDOS has found that literature and recollections by the public is fast disappearing from the public eye. We need to preserve and save literature, images and recollections by the public for future generations to learn about the Day of the Buffalo!
Postal Address: The SAWDOS, Box 11488, HEIDERAND 6511
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