Two one-in-100-year-storms

By Allan Jackson - May 2008

Late on the night of 11 March, 2008, many people in Durban woke with a start to an awesome display of thunder, lightning and heavy rain.

Even up our way in Hillcrest, the storm was one of the most intense I can remember and it caused untold damage round and about the city. In addition to the usual flood damage, operations at the two oil refineries in the South Durban were brought to a halt, with 168mm of rain having fallen at the Engen refinery in just a few hours.

The Mercury reported a city official as saying that a storm of that severity could be classified as a one-in-50-year or even a one-in-100-year event. The estimate is not that far off the mark as I found recently, when reading a copy of an historic booklet sent to me, via Scott Silburn, by my informant Barry Willan.

The booklet is an illustrated souvenir of the 'Great Storm' of 31 May, 1905, and was published sometime after that by the Central News Agency, at the price of one shilling. The booklet says of the storm that 'it suddenly swept hundreds of human beings to destruction' and 'constitute[s] the most appalling display of the forces of Nature in her wilder mood that stands recorded in the history of South Africa'.

The booklet describes how rain began to fall at 4pm and how, soon after that, pedestrians were battling to walk against the gale and that their umbrellas overcoats provided no protection from the driving rain.

It rained hard for most of the evening and stressed the Pinetown reservoir to the point that it burst, at some time after midnight, and released millions of tons of water to rampage its way into Durban bay, following the line of least resistance along the valleys of the Umbilo and Umhlatuzan rivers.

Rail links to the interior were cut and the telegraph service, Durban's only link with the outside world, was interrupted. The whole town had been battered by the storm but those who brunt of the tragedy were the Indian communities living in the low-lying areas next to the Umbilo River and at South Coast Junction, where many dwellings were swept away. It was initially estimated that 50 people had lost their lives but the booklet speculated that the eventual toll was likely to be closer to 500 than 50.

Partially destroyed by the 1905 storm, a double-storied house in Botanic Gardens Road.

<== Click to view enlargement.

Even shipping in the bay was affected with the dredger Sandpiper being sunk, the Bluff ferry fleet wrecked and many yachts destroyed. Roofs were blown off all over town and trees were uprooted in Albert Park.

The approach to the railway bridge at Phoenix on the North Coast line had given way, and a locomotive had run into the river, drowning the fireman. Around 10,5 inches of rain fell in Durban and over 15 inches fell in Pinetown during that terrible night.

The rest of the province fared no better, having been struck by gale force winds, intense cold and heavy snow which blanketed the area from Hilton Road Station to the Berg. Livestock died in droves from the cold and crops, including wattle, were destroyed.

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