Today - 50 years ago - was... The perfect storm

Kevin Brown spoke to Brett Adkins about the day he was taken for the ride of a lifetime, one which would almost cost him his life

It was, in Hollywood parlance, the perfect storm.
Three heavy weather fronts hitting Port Elizabeth early on a Sunday – September 1 1968 – and young hockey player Kevin Brown was about to get taken for the ride of a lifetime.
One which would almost cost him his life.
To get sucked into a floodwater engorged drainpipe so that even police gave up any chance of his survival – and come out the other side with not a bone broken – is, even to this day, unbelievable, says Brown, 71, exactly 50 years on.
Speaking at his Walmer home this week, Brown told of his extraordinarily close shave in the great flood of ’68.
He was just 21 years old, a player for Pirates and about to start his new job as a sales trainee at Firestone the very next day.
“I don’t think we realised how much it had rained through the night,” Brown said, recalling how he and his pals, David Murphy and Roger Ash, were driving in Hallack Road near St George’s Park at around 9am.
“As we got to the dip at the back of the Sharley Cribb Nurses Home it was completely flooded so we stopped. But we saw a couple of other cars get through all right so we went ahead.”
What the three couldn’t know was that a huge well of water had built up behind the nurses’ home’s boundary wall and the next thing – bang! It burst.
“We just heard this thud as the wall came crashing down and a two-metre wall of water hit us.
“Dave and Roger were in front and managed to get out the driver’s side. I was at the back and got out the other side – but as I got out, I went over the edge and the next thing I was sucked down the drainpipe feet first.”
Brown can’t remember much as he hurtled about 50 metres down the one-metrewide duct underneath Target Kloof.
“But I shot out the other end like a cork out a bottle and was washed straight up against a tree, hitting the left side of my ribs hard. I was full of cuts and bruises but not a bone broken. If I had hit my head in that pipe, I would have been dead.”
A panicked Murphy and Ash were left wondering what had happened to their friend and were desperately searching for him, suspecting he might have been sucked into the stormwater drain.
Murphy managed to get to a phone to call the police who arrived in Hallack Road.
“When Dave and Roger told the cops they thought I had gone down the pipe, they even said something like ‘well, you won’t see him again’.”
After a still stunned and dazed Brown – all his clothes ripped off apart from his jeans – started hearing pine trees crack and beginning to fall from the heavy rain, he quickly scrambled to his feet.
“I didn’t know where the hell I was. But then a guy in a Land Rover picked me up in Target Kloof and took me to casualty at Provincial [Hospital] where I had to wait a couple of hours because the doctor couldn’t get there due to all the flooding.
“I was given morphine – and that felt pretty good,” Brown quipped.
“I am lucky to be alive to tell the tale 50 years on.”
What had landed Brown in that drainpipe was a similar vessel high above him.
A towering funnel of cloud reaching a staggering height of more than 12,000m, unleashing a deadly deluge on the city.
It was a bombardment of thunderstorms so severe, residents could not remember seeing anything like it.
The meteorological office had recorded the height of this astonishing pillar of cloud which – like a burst dam wall – released a torrential, unrelenting downpour.
The result was havoc – nine fatalities, including a father and his young daughter who drowned after becoming trapped beneath a parked car at the bottom of Russell Road – prominent buildings and a huge network of roads and bridges destroyed or disabled, and an entire river re-directed.
“All you saw was all these cars being washed away in a flooded Baakens River, just rolling over and over,” recalled the South End Trust’s Valentine Brink in 2015.
“The PE Tramways bus company building was completely flooded. The river was huge, powerful.”
Residents of Valley Road had to be lifted off their roofs as the floodwaters rose.
And a raging Shark River lived up to its name by devouring everything in its path – including the then Boet Erasmus Stadium and one of the city’s most popular attractions, Happy Valley, which was wiped out by the non-stop wall of water which eventually slammed into the Humewood promenade, creating a waterfall.
The Baakens River swept up people, cars and caravans and hundreds of residents from the northern areas lost their shacks as the Chatty River washed away everything they owned.
An odd sight was the number of Volkswagen Beetles that could be seen still driving through the thundershowers and rising waters.
Maybe not the flashiest of cars, but this was thanks to the positioning of the vehicle’s exhaust pipe which allowed for increased clearance.
Day a dam emptied on PE
In our precarious drought predicament, it sounds like manna from heaven – the contents of a full Churchill Dam falling over the city.
But as the SA Weather Service’s Garth Sampson explains, it actually turned into waves of destruction.
No-one could imagine on going to bed on Saturday night August 31 1968, what they would wake up to the next morning.
So when the citizens awoke to some light rain just after 7am, they thought it was the perfect day to roll over for a Sunday morning snooze.
The fact that most of the population remained indoors was one of the main reasons for the relatively low number of fatalities for such a disaster.
At just before 8am, the heavens opened, like a storm of Biblical proportions.
In just over four hours, between 7.40am and midday, a total of 352mm of rain was measured at the airport.
Although this is the officially documented figure, the autographic rain gauge at the reservoir in Adcockvale recorded 470mm from 8am to noon.
This equated to a sustained rainfall intensity of 20-30mm per 15-minute period.
It turned roads into raging rivers that caused wave upon wave of destruction.
Authorities had no way of designing a stormwater system that could cope with this amount of water. Experts claim this would only occur once in 100 if not 1,000 years.
It was claimed that approximately 26,000 megalitres of water was deposited over the city – equating to almost the entire Churchill Dam being poured over the city in four hours. At the time it was reported that damage was estimated to be in the region of R40m.
A 2018 projection of the rand value is in excess of R5bn.
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 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.
Streets were flooded beyond belief, with numerous photographs showing only the top half of double decker buses and there were other pictures of canoes in Newton Park.
Cars are also seen washed up against the bridge over the Baakens River at the entrance to the harbour.
The most memorable images were of the promenade, which was damaged beyond repair and changed the face of the city’s beachfront forever.
There were some interesting anecdotes.
A resident related that on the Saturday night she had made a large pot of curry. She and her husband had some friends over. They got to bed very late and when she eventually awoke, the curry pot was floating past her bed, as her house was flooded to bed level.
Forest Hill Drive had a 10m wide section missing and part of the cemetery washed away. Bones from the old cemetery nearby washed away. Some parents were horrified when children brought these home.
Many fish were washed out of the North End Lake and were caught by hand in what is now Govan Mbeki Avenue.
Many exotic snakes were reported to have died at the snake park when the heaters failed in power outages.
Twins were born in an ambulance that was bogged down when part of Stanford Road collapsed.
Braving waters to save stuck teen
“You can’t go into the water, you will drown!”
This was the urgent warning of three fishermen who knew a thing or two about currents.
But that wasn’t stopping a 17-year-old who broke away from them, not hesitating for a second to dive into a raging torrent to save the life of a younger teen, trapped and drowning in a 5m hole.
Nova McIntosh, 67, recalled on Friday how – 50 years ago – she had gone to the rescue of Nicolaas “Boetie” Oosthuizen, then 14, who, moments before, had been swept away by surging floodwaters which engulfed what was then Stuart Township near the Port Elizabeth Airport. It was an act of courage which would see her being awarded a Red Cross medal for bravery.
McIntosh – who was then Nova van Eyk and a casual worker at Lilwills bakery in Rink Street – pulled Oosthuizen to safety.
At the time, McIntosh said in an interview: “When I got level with the spot where Boetie was I saw his chin resting on a plank on a branch of a tree. I didn’t know whether he was dead or unconscious.”
McIntosh was even wellversed enough in CPR to be able to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
“I said a prayer when I got him safely on the ground.
“The next thing a blue and white helicopter arrived and took him to hospital.”
Oosthuizen was treated for a fractured kneecap and was later pictured with his lifesaver for a newspaper report – both with broad smiles.
But their lives would intertwine again. Many years later, McIntosh’s son Craig would marry a young woman named Chantel who turned out to be Oosthuizen’s niece.
“I gave my Red Cross medal for bravery to their son – my 11-year-old grandson Cuyler. It is now part of the Oosthuizen family too.”

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