The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968

Unlike adults, at the age of 15, one is never affected by the weather. Even if it was raining, we would go swimming in the sea. Whether it was night or a howling gale force wind was blowing, we would be swimming. No matter how atrocious the weather conditions were or what the time of day was, it was time to swim.

There was only one exception to this rule: the water temperature. If the sea water was freezing cold we would not swim but that would not prevent us from wading in the water and even “catching” a few waves. Nothing seemed to deter us or maybe we just never noticed what the weather was like.

Main picture: This “river” which runs through Happy Valley is normally no more than a trickle and would normally be classified as a placid stream.

Sunday 1st September 1968 was no different. If we had been able to cajole our father to take us swimming that day even if it was only at Schoenmakerskop and not at our favourite, which was Pollock Beach or Willows, we would have gone. Perhaps it was because he had sense enough to realise what was on the agenda for that day. As usual he had been out early in the morning fishing with his brother Bryce somewhere along the rocks at Schoenmakerskop. Whatever the reason was for his extreme reluctance, I cannot recall.

Humewood Road before the "stream" washed away the bridge

Humewood Road before the “stream” washed away the bridge

The morning might have been darker than normal with dark pregnant clouds obscuring the sun, but this was not a valid reason not to go swimming as we usually did every weekend. Moreover the sky might have been grey and forbidding as subsequent reports suggest, but that fact never crossed our minds. Then it started raining – heavy and persistent. Giant drops smashed on the already soaked ground. The significance of this fact never registered until I was much older. Before long, rivulets of water hastened their way downhill.

Intersection at Main Street and Albany Road

Intersection at Main Street and Albany Road

Through the diamond shaped windows on the verandah which my father had built a few years before, we watched the water rush along Mowbray Street past the house opposite ours. In it lived a middle aged Jewish couple, the Seisals. We watched as the water dashed past their house as if it was too frightened to stop. It rushed onward to the storm water drain in front of the Schroeder’s house. The Siesel were one of the fortunate Jews who had been able to escape from Nazi Germany before the emigration ceased due to the various restrictions placed on them by the Nazis and also due to the immigration limits placed on Jews by other European governments. With nothing more than a suitcase and £5 to their name they had arrived in South Africa in 1934. Ever the entrepreneur, Mr Siesel had opened a clothing store catering for the black trade in North End. While the Siesels had been lucky, most of their friends and family were not. They were never heard of again and presumably they had been consumed in the vortex of the concentration camps and the Holocaust.

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Every Friday night the menorah, a type of candelabra with 6 branches and 7 lamps, would shine from their dimmed dining room. All that I can recall of the effusive Mrs Siesel is her Germanic pronunciation of everything especially the word schokelade with its hard guttural vowels. Unlike the garrulous Mrs Siesel who never discovered where either the speech off-switch or the volume control knobs were located, Mr Siesel was taciturn and unfriendly. To me at least, he was. Not nasty but unwelcoming.

Our Jewish neighbours and my mothers best friends, the Siesel

Our Jewish neighbours and one of my mothers best friends, Erna & Arthur Siesel. The little girl must either be Erika or her sister Karla.

Relentlessly the rain beat down. As the water pooled in front of the Schroeder’s house, the storm water drain was unable to cope. Water will always find a way of escaping or discover a new course. And so it did this day. As the water pooled in the road and its level rose, it found the outlet that it was desparately searching for: the driveways of both the Seasals and the Schroeder’s.

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We were fortunate. The area in which Mowbray Street was situated was on a slope and not in a depression or heaven forbid in a valley or near a stream. Water could still flow between and around the houses. What did interrupt its flow were garden walls but nothing more serious than that.

There was no respite. The rain kept beating down. The steady drum beat of enormous rain drops made talking impossible, enveloping and cocooning one in one’s own world. The thick clouds would not budge, stir or drift away. They were intent of ridding themselves of their excessive moisture. So the morning progressed.

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In the gloomy half-light in the lounge, I listened to the haunting melody of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. To this day, I can recall reading an article from Purnell’s History of WW2 which was a part work. The episode that I read recounted the odyssey of Montgomery’s forces in southern Holland during the icy cold winter of December 1944. The combination of the bass melody of Armstrong and the pictures of frozen soldiers in mid-winter still evokes a haunting memory. A barren landscape with trees like stick figures smothered under a thick coating of snow is now inextricably linked in my mind with death and destruction. Even today it is a surreal macabre recollection which haunts me occasionally.

 

Old 1st Avenue , Newton Park. St Columba's Presbyterian Church in the distance.

Old 1st Avenue , Newton Park. St Columba’s Presbyterian Church in the distance.

Ultimately as the last moisture was wrung from the clouds, the rain slowed to a gentle pitter-patter and then it was over. The rain was exhausted. The sun strenuously attempted to make an appearance but it could not lever the grey from the sky. It remained a sullen light-battleship-grey with an occasional splodge of iridescent blue.

We were out like a shot. We dared not go into the Seisal’s yard on pain of death but as we were acquaintances of the Schroeder boys, we charged across there to see their backyards. With a brick wall acting as an extemporised dam wall, the water was trapped in the yard. The drainage holes had long since been clogged with the detritus of the flood. The water level was three quarters of the way up the wall. That was like heaven for kids. We grabbed whatever floatation device that came to hand and paddled around the garden.

 

The tiny somnamulent stream called majestically a river broke its banks and it surged towards the harbour

The tiny somnamulent stream called majestically a river broke its banks and it surged towards the harbour

Then it was off to the “dip” in Third Avenue, Newton Park. The word “dip” was a euphemism for a steep gorge with a low level bridge over it on the bottom. The normally placid Baakens Rivers was now a raging torrent with all the flotsam and jetsam that it had accumulated in its short journey from its headwater some 10kms upstream. It was an impressive sight as it forced it way downstream in an impatient charge elbowing out all before it.

 

The Baarkens River

The Baarkens River

With all main arterial roads impassable due to damage especially to those around Brickmaker’s Kloof, the mouth of the Baakens River and even Humewood, it was no wonder than we never went for a swim in the sea on that Sunday however much emotional blackmail or cajoling that we used.

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For us kids, dad’s logic did not provide a cogent reason not to go swimming that Sunday.

As far as we were concerned, that is what weekends were meant for

Whatever the weather.

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Burt Drive

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Albany Road

 

1 September 1968, 16 inches of rain fell on Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape in a single day- the highest rainfall figure in living memory.

Five people are known to be dead and 30 people had to be rescued as 429 mm of rain fell on the city, devastating the roads and destroying countless homes. The city ground to a standstill during this disaster. Cars and caravans were swept down the Baakens River and an onlooker observed that, “cars bounced and bobbed on the raging torrent like corks. Their engines dug into the water while the body shells bounced on the waves!”

The meteorological office recorded clouds building up to a height of 40,000 feet as the storm worsened. “It was just like a huge funnel, picking up water from the bottom and spewing it out from the top!” Observers recorded a series of violent thunderstorms, which dovetailed each other throughout the morning.

In Newton Park, North End, Sydenham, Salt Lake and Gelvandale, people stood helplessly watching as floodwaters swirled through their houses carrying furniture, cooking utensils and clothing with them.

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Shark River, Humewood

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Brickmakerskloof

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Shark River, Humewood

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Shark River, Humewood

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15 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing Dean. We lived in Pickering Street between 1st and 2nd Ave. Remember we took our servant’s sink bath down the road and used as a canoo! What fun we had as children regardless the disaster. Also use to take every opportunity to swim wherever, regardless of the weather. Still love swimming and still swim in the cold West Coast sea every morning from Sep – May

    Reply
  2. This is an amazing piece of Port Elizabeth history. Exciting for me was to read about my maternal grandparents, Erna and Arthur Siesel, (in the article Seisal), the little girl must be either my mother Erika or her sister Karla.
    :-) thanks for the descriptions :-)

    Reply
    • Ilan, I caught that too. I’ll add for the readers that Erika, upon her marriage to my cousin Allie, became a member of the Dubb/Levin/Mirkin “clan”, one of the largest Jewish extended families in PE. Dean’s article and the pics are amazing.

      Reply
  3. I remember the devastation at Amsterdamhoek. Landslides caused people to evacuate their homes. Strange how one forgets and then when one reads about it years on, memories all come back!

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    • Hi Sigrid,
      Do you perhaps any photos of that calamity in Amsterdamhoek?
      I have plenty of the devastation to Central PE but none of the outlying areas

      Regards
      Dean

      Reply
  4. I remember it well! I was in Grahamtown at the time and we heard stories of coffins and corpses being washed out of their graves. Maybe there was a lot of exaggeration, but having seen these pictures, maybe not. I found myself in PE some months after the event and clearly remember seeing a huge donga and being told that it was once Happy Valley. After the flood, the weather bureau issued an elaborate explanation, but obviously they were better at describing the phenomenon after it had happened than forecasting it. Nowadays the obligatory global warming and climate change mantra would be invoked. As Mark Twain said, “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get”. PE certainly got weather in 1968.

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    • I was 15 years old at the time & I certainly don’t recall “stories of coffins and corpses being washed out of their graves.” Perhaps they were apocryphal!

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  5. Great read Dean…
    I was also about 15 years old. Settlers Day long weekend… Dad and I set off to the cafe to get the Sunday Times and other items only to find we couldn’t get out of Linkside because the only road then was into Mill Park and it had been washed away!
    After returning home with the car we walked PE flat – from Fort Frederick to Settlers’Park to Newton Park… a fascinating Sunday for a kid!!

    Reply
  6. Great read Dean…
    I was also about 15 years old. Settlers Day long weekend… Dad and I set off to the cafe to get the Sunday Times and other items only to find we couldn’t get out of Linkside because the only road then was into Mill Park and it had been washed away!
    After returning home with the car we walked PE flat – from Fort Frederick to Settlers’Park to Newton Park… a fascinating Sunday for a kid!!

    Reply
  7. This was so interesting thanks, I was only 3 at the time, but remember it quite clearly, also my dad had many photos of Happy Valley taken after the deluge, unfortunately don’t know what happened to all those pics.

    Reply

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