23 December 2004

Southern Cape swamped by record deluges

Thunderstorms swept across the drought-ravaged southern Cape on Wednesday, flooding towns, cutting power supplies and washing away roads.

In Suurbraak and Riversdale, people who had been cut off by swollen rivers were airlifted to safety.

Knysna and Robertson had the most rain ever measured in a single day in December since records began in the 1880s.

The unexpected downpours came as most of the southern Cape towns were in the grip of a summer drought and subjected to severe water restrictions.

Two adults and two children on a farm near Suurbraak were airlifted to safety by the Red Cross Skymed helicopter and in Riversdale a mother and child were rescued from a rooftop by the Nokia Surf Rescue helicopter.

In Knysna, 189mm of rain fell between 8am and 2pm, turning streets into rivers and flooding shops, restaurants, municipal offices and homes. The average December rainfall for Knysna is 53mm. Yesterday's rain was more than double Knysna's highest rainfall ever recorded in 24 hours in December, which was 72mm in 1970. It is the highest 24-hour December rainfall since records began in 1880.

Megan Mason, of The Olive Tree restaurant, said the water was about one metre deep in her Main Street restaurant.

"Some of the orders had been cooked, so we served customers sitting on tables. Now all the plugs are under water, so everything's switched off and all the meat and supplies in the fridges and freezers are going to go off," Mason said.

In Robertson, 175mm of rain fell between 8am and 2pm. The average December rainfall for Robertson is 16mm and the highest ever recorded there in 24 hours in December is 45mm.

Mariana Oliver, of the Cape Town weather office, said yesterday's rain was the highest recorded for the town in 24 hours since records began in 1877. Worcester had only 1,2mm on Wednesday.

Roy Feldman, head of disaster management in Robertson, said the R62 tourist route had been closed because of flooding.

Helicopters from the South African Air Force's 22 Squadron were on standby at Ysterplaat after reports that a major dam in Robertson was in danger of collapsing, but by late yesterday the dam wall was still secure.

In Sedgefield, two roads were closed and the caravan park and several houses were flooded. Resident Peter Schutte, who was trapped in his bakkie with his wife and 11-week-old son, said: "The rain was pouring down and suddenly this whole sand dune came sliding over the road and it came almost up to the bonnet. It took three 4x4s and about 25 people with shovels to get us out."

In Mossel Bay, there were power cuts and at Hartenbos, a Jewish youth camp was flooded. Swellendam municipal manager Trevor Botha said damage in the town was estimated to be about R1.5 million.

"We had over 100mm from 5am to noon," Botha said. "Two bridges over the Koornlands river were damaged and houses were flooded. The flood damaged the water supply, so about 90 dwellings were without water. We had one powerline down and boundary walls collapsed. I live on a koppie but, when the canal was blocked, the water flowed through my house."

Cleeve Robertson, head of Western Cape emergency medical services, criticised the weather office for not issuing a warning to the emergency services. He also said he was "very unhappy" with the way the rescues had been handled.

"There was very poor planning concerning the helicopter rescues. It's something I've got to sort out," Robertson said.

He said that on the N1 near Laingsburg, he drove through the worst thunderstorm he had ever experienced.

"I had to stop because visibility was so bad," he said. "Afterwards, the koppies were white with hail."

By late yesterday, most of the floodwater was receding and the authorities were mopping up and assessing damage.

Jo-ann Bekker reports that the floods will not ease Knysna's water crisis. The town's Akkerkloof storage dam was still only 15 percent full as a result of faulty pumps and pipes. The town's water supply was being met by drawing water from the Knysna River.


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