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Tales of bravery, loss and raging rivers

The Mngeni River mouth at the Ellis Brown viaduct after the 1987 floods in Durban.

The Mngeni River mouth at the Ellis Brown viaduct after the 1987 floods in Durban.

Published Apr 16, 2022


Durban - The storm this week may well be classified as Durban’s deadliest. With the death toll already more than 300, and rescue workers still picking through the rubble of collapsed homes and buildings, the final tally could rise.

On Monday, 351mm dropped over Virginia and more than 200mm in Durban, causing massive damage to buildings, businesses, and infrastructure which still has to be properly assessed but could easily top the destruction caused by tropical cyclone Domoina (also spelled Demoina).

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As the mopping up starts and the city tries to restore infrastructure and repair roads, it might be worth remembering that Durban has a long history of weathering some horrific storms.

The Mngeni River mouth after the floods this week. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

The first recorded flood in KwaZulu-Natal was in 1856 when 686mm of rain was reported. It started on Sunday, April 13 at about 3pm with torrential rain until well into Tuesday afternoon.

On the night of Monday, April 14 the townspeople of Durban began to fear that the Umgeni river would burst its banks. George Potter, manager of the new Springfield Sugar Works, raced to the mill and described the raging river as “a mighty rushing sea”. He was too late: the mill was swamped. The river had risen about 4.5m and took that year’s harvest waiting for crushing.

Adopt a River called in the troops, Oceans Alive, Green Corridor, The Litter Boom project and some municipality support to clean up the debris on the beaches from this week’s flooding. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

George Cato, mayor of Durban, had his new schooner carried off by the flood waters.

In Pinetown nearly all the chimneys were blown away, many gables collapsed and a church was destroyed. Further inland at Howick, the torrential waters of the Mngeni carried away both bridges over the river.

Mudslides cause massive damage in suburbs around Durban. Picture: Theo Jeptha/ African News Agency(ANA)

On October 28, 1917, torrential rains saw the Mngeni River once again burst its banks when more than 400 market gardeners from the Springfield Flats (known as Tin Town) drowned. The death toll would have been higher if it were not for the bravery of six seine-netters who saved 176 people. The fishermen made five trips into the raging river in an oar-driven banana boat that they used for their everyday fishing.

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Known as the Padavatan Six after their captain, Mariemuthoo Padavatan, the rescue effort is considered one of the greatest civilian acts of bravery in South Africa. With Padavathan were Sabapathy Govender, Rangasamy Naidoo, Kuppusamy Naidoo, T Veloo and his older brother, Gangan Padavatan.

Informal settlements in South Durban were once again heavily affected by flooding. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)
Containers strewn around the N2 intersection with the M4 in South Durban which looks like a lake. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)
Stacks of containers blown over and into the floodwaters at Prospecton. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

About 2 500 people lived in wood and iron houses on the river banks. That night, as the Tin Town farmers slept, the rains and the resulting debris dammed up the Railway and Connaught Bridges. When the pillars of the Railway Bridge cracked, a wall of water and debris came down on Tin Town. Houses, people and livestock were swept away.

Sabapathy Govender was haunted by the people they couldn’t get to or who were swept off the roofs of their homes before they could get to them. The men wanted to do a sixth trip onto the river but sheer exhaustion prevented them.

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A boy looks at the remains of a tanker that was washed down the Mngeni River. Picture: Theo Jeptha/ African News Agency(ANA)
The litter and debris that has collected in the harbour after the floods. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

On January 27, 1984 Domoina hit, followed soon after by cyclone Imboa

Domoina moved south and for five days, torrential rain fell over Mozambique, northern KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Swaziland, reaching as far south as Durban.

The cyclone caused widespread flooding, left thousands of people homeless and 242 deaths were recorded. In South Africa damage of more than R100 billion was caused to agriculture, communications and nature reserves. The rainfall peaked during this storm at 950mm and most river basins were flooded. The most rain to fall in one day at one point ever recorded in South Africa was at the St Lucia Lake and this was 597mm.

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Bystanders watching the full Umgeni River flowing into sea at Blue Lagoon. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)
A full Mngeni River at Springfield looking inland from Kensington Heights on Peter Mokaba Road North. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

On February 18, less than three weeks after Domoina, Imboa reached the Zululand coast, causing high winds and dropping 350mm of rain in some areas. There was flooding along the Mhlatuze and Mfolozi rivers. Fortunately the cyclone changed course and moved away from the East coast of Africa.

Heavy rains between September 28 and 30 in 1987 saw the central and southern parts of the province ravaged by devastating floods. The destruction of property was catastrophic. Nearly 400 people died and about 50 000 were left homeless. Damage to agriculture, communications, infrastructure and property amounted to R400 million.

The Mngeni and Mvoti rivers caused dramatic erosion. In the Mngeni the island near the mouth was totally removed. The Mvoti, normally 35m, widened to about 900m. Many bridges were washed away but the destruction of the Mdloti and Tugela river bridges caused the greatest disruption.

Flooding in Athlone Drive near the Mngeni River. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

In October 2017 strong winds, hail and heavy rain left at least 8 people dead and caused severe damage in South Durban

Torrential rain fell on October 10, recording 108mm in 24 hours, breaking the previous record high of 105mm set in October 1985.

Dozens of buildings were damaged. Some of the worst affected areas included the Bluff, Jacobs, Montclair, Glenwood, uMlazi, Merebank and Isipingo. Drivers were stranded as several roads were flooded, with the worst hit the N2 at the old airport which was covered by 1.5m of water after the Umhlatuzana River burst its banks.

Road damage at eMdloti. The beach resort suffered some horrific mudslides, one bringing down an entire block of flats.

Easter in 2019 saw more flooding. The rain, which started on April 18, continued over the weekend with 165mm falling over Durban on April 22. The storm caused floods, mudslides and sinkholes that left 70 people dead and massive damage to infrastructure. Flooding, landslides, collapsed buildings and rivers bursting their banks were reported all along the south of Durban, with the hardest-hit areas being uMlazi, eManzimtoti, Chatsworth, Malvern and Queensburgh.

The Independent on Saturday