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SEE IMAGES: 50th Anniversary of Port Elizabeth's 1968 floods

Sep 1, 2018
SEE IMAGES: 50th Anniversary of Port Elizabeth's 1968 floods

Saturday marked 50 years from the day floods hit Port Elizabeth in 1968 after a ferocious storm battered the region, leaving havoc, destruction and death in its path.

"Nobody could imagine on going to bed on Saturday night 31 August 1968, what they would wake up to the next morning.

"So when the citizens of Port Elizabeth awoke to some light rain, just after 7am, they thought it was the perfect day to roll over, snuggle up and have a good Sunday morning snooze," describes Garth. Sampson, Client Liaison Officer: Port Elizabeth for the South African Weather Service.

"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."

He says that at just before 8am, the heavens opened, like a storm of Biblical proportions.

"In just over 4 hours, between 07h40 and 12h00, a total of 352 mm 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 470 mm between 08h00 and 12h00.

"This equated to a sustained rainfall intensity of 20 to 30 mm per 15 minute period, over this 4 hour period. This turned roads and streets into raging rivers that caused wave upon wave of destruction," Sampson adds.

"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 429 mm and the Adcockvale Reservoir 552 mm.

"Experts claim that approximately 26 000 Mega liters of water was deposited over the city. That equates to almost the entire Churchill Dam (33 000 Mega liters) being poured over the city in four hours."

The following copy of the rainfall chart and the reproduction of that chart, for the period 07h30 to 12h30, paints a clearer picture of the actual intensity of the rain (note that the gauge syphons when it reaches 10 mm).

Figure 1: Rainfall chart 1 September 1968 (Port Elizabeth Airport)

Figure 2: Reproduction of 1 September 1968 Rainfall chart (Port Elizabeth Airport)

To put this into context, the following is a running total of the hourly rainfall:


By 09h00 a total of 82.9 mm of rain was measured (in one hour the rain exceeded Port Elizabeth monthly average rainfall of around 50 mm).


By 10h00 a total of 161.1 mm was measured (in two hours the rain exceeded the 24 hour rainfall total of 128 mm, that was measured at the Port Elizabeth Airport, during the devastating flood of 2 August 2006).


By 11h00 a total of 265.0 mm was measured (in three hours the rain exceeded the total 24 hour rainfall total of 224 mm, that was measured at the Port Elizabeth Airport, during the devastating flood of 25 March 1981).


By 12h00 a total of 352.0 mm was measured (in four hours the rain exceeded the monthly total of 309 mm that was measured at the Port Elizabeth Airport, for the entire month when flooding occurred in March 1981).

"By comparison, the 1968 flood far exceeded other floods in so far as not only sustained extreme rainfall intensity is concerned, but also total rainfall," Sampson describes.

"The graphic below shows the comparison between the rainfall intensities of the September 1968, March 1981, December 2004, May 2006 and August 2006 flooding events in Port Elizabeth, over a 5 hour period. It is clear that 1968 is by far the worst flood in living memory."

Figure 3Port Elizabeth: Rainfall intensity of major floods

He said that it is interesting to note that just like the 1908 flood, the intensity and total rainfall varied in different parts of the city.

In The South African Weather Service Publication, Caelum, (which contains a record of severe weather events in South Africa), the entry for November 1908 states that“The Baakens River flooded when a cloud burst struck between the farms of Messrs Parkins and Lovemore. At one stage the river rose 2 m in 5 minutes and in some places measured 7 m in depth”. It is interesting to note that the area referred to is the area between Lovemore Heights and Hunters retreat, which is roughly now the area of Sherwood and Lorraine.  On that day in 1908, Emerald Hill only measured a total of 180 mm (52 and 158 mm) for the event. Photographic evidence shows that this figure was far exceeded.

The graphic below of the 1968 event shows that the majority of rainfall fell in the Sydenham/North End area, which ties up with where the majority of the damage was caused. Unconfirmed reports were published of a ship in the bay (just off the old North-End beach) recording in excess of 1000 mm.

Figure 4: Isohyet for Port Elizabeth 1 September 1968. Dotted lines are contours

The consequences

"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," Sampson said.

"A 2018 projection of the rand value is in excess of R5 billion. However, one must consider the size of the city at that time and the total population.  In other words if this had occurred in 2018, with the current population, that figure could be, at a conservative estimate, quadrupled.

"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."

He added that 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. 

"Other photographs show people in canoes in 1st Avenue (now Langenhoven Drive) Newton Park. Even more photographs show the Baakens breaking its banks and engulfing all business premises and residence in its wake in the South End area. Motor cars are also seen washed up against the bridge over the Baakens at the entrance to the harbour, at the old bus sheds."

Sampson said that 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," he adds.

"This washed away the rugby fields at the Boetie Erasmus Stadium (later known as Telkom Park and now being demolished). 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

Sampson said that a local 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," he noted.

"There were many jokes doing the rounds at the time, like the one of a coffin being washed away from the Forest Hill Cemetery. It ended up in a chemist shop with its lid missing. The skeleton was holding up a note that read: Please do something to help my coughin.

"However, Forest Hill Drive had a 10 meter 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."

Apparently a motorist in Newton Park was amazed to see a canoeist traveling down 1st Avenue (now Langenhoven Drive).

"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 Georges were washed away and landed up in a pool under the Crusaders Rugby Club Pavilion," Sampson said.

"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."

He added that 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)”

"Offers of support were received as far afield as the mayor of Bulawayo. The Australian Trade Survey Commission to South Africa was marooned on the day in a beachfront hotel in the city. The leader of the delegation sent a note of sympathy and R50 for the relief fund," Sampson said.

"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."

What can be done to minimize the effects of flooding?

"The loss of life in the 1968 flood was far less than any of the other major floods in the city. The main reason for this is that it occurred on a Sunday morning, while the others occurred on a work day (weekday)," Sampson described.

"In 1968, most people were either asleep or preparing for church, when the rain started. Those who did decide to make the trip to church did not travel far, as at the time most attended a church within their suburb."

Staying indoors during times of flooding is the biggest factor that could save your life.

He added, although the 1968 event was not fully forecast, modern technology and know-how would have foreseen such an event and the population would have been warned well in advance.

"Schools and other institutions would usually be closed during such an event, thus keeping many people off the roads.

"If it is raining heavily during a flooding event, rather delay or cancel your journey until the rain is over," he explained.

"After the events, stay off roads as vehicles usually obstruct the workings of the emergency services and their vehicles." 

Here is a list of precautions during flooding events:

o   Listen to the radio or follow twitter or Facebook warnings to get the latest OFFICIAL warnings. Be advised to use the authoritative pages, such as SA Weather Service. There are numerous hoaxes and misinformation on various unofficial sites.

o   As soon as you hear a warning of flooding in the city, make sure all gutters are clean of debris as well as areas around storm water drains. If you have water tanks drop the level, so that the water will not only be stored for later, but will also reduce flooding on your property.

o   If one is outdoors always avoid low lying areas, even if they are not already flooded at the time of wanting to cross. Low water crossings levels can rise rapidly. Rather wait until the rain has passed. Plan routes to avoid low lying areas, such as the 3rd Avenue Dip and Riverstone Road.

o   Store water. Although there might be plenty around during the event, if water pipes are damaged, there could be a shortage of fresh water later.

o   If the water level is rising and starting to flood a building, switch off the main electricity supply, to avoid electrocution.

o   Plastic sheets can prevent flood water seeping through airbricks.

o   If the water level is rising, sand bags (plastic bags filled with soil) can be placed around doors.


  • 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
  • The Oosterlig (now the Burger)
  • The Scope Magazine

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