THEN & NOW

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The main street in Laings­burg, 36 years af­ter the flood.

Iwas only three months old when the flood hit Laings­burg and I lived many towns away in the Boland, yet I feel like I can re­mem­ber it. This is partly due to the fact that my grand­fa­ther’s lucerne fields, 115 km down­stream, were also swept away, and be­cause a dis­as­ter of this mag­ni­tude digs it­self into the col­lec­tive mem­ory of a na­tion. On Sun­day 25 Jan­uary 1981, when the Buf­fels River burst its banks, there was lit­tle cause for con­cern at first. But the flood grew stronger as branches and other de­bris ac­cu­mu­lated below the rail­way bridge and more and more wa­ter was chan­nelled into the streets. By noon the wa­ter level rose sud­denly and by 3 pm the flood stormed over the road bridge. Two hours later the wa­ter was lap­ping against the win­dows of the school hos­tel. The peo­ple of Laings­burg climbed onto the roofs of their houses and watched at 5 pm as a wall of wa­ter, 4,5 m high, tore through their town. The flood dis­si­pated as quickly as it had ar­rived. By 8 pm the wa­ter was low enough for res­i­dents to wade through the streets. But the dam­age had been done: 184 houses de­stroyed, as well as the old-age home, the school hos­tel and 23 busi­nesses. More tragic was the loss of life: 104 res­i­dents per­ished, but only 32 bod­ies were re­trieved down­stream. The rest… who knows? When I visit Laings­burg, I like to pop into Ka­roo Bil­tong in Voortrekker Street. The build­ing that now houses the shop was one of the few in town to sur­vive the flood. It was built by a cer­tain SL Solomon and was owned by gen­eral dealer Hen­nie van Vu­uren at the time of the flood. Hen­nie’s shop was called CBM Su­per­mark – CBM is the Laings­burg ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tion num­ber. Hen­nie’s wife Denise re­mem­bers that Sun­day in 1981 very well: “We had been away for the week­end in Harten­bos,” she says. “When we re­turned that night our shop and our house next door were among the few build­ings still stand­ing. Peo­ple gath­ered on the rail­way plat­form and we opened the shop to feed them.” The Van Vu­urens also ar­ranged ropes and torches to help peo­ple get down from their roofs. Also can­dles, clothes… The res­i­dents of Laings­burg took what they needed from CBM Su­per­mark. Next time you’re in town, look for the flood marker in Voortrekker Street. You’ll be sur­prised by what you can re­mem­ber… Sources: Laings­burg Flood Mu­seum, Die Siviele In­ge­nieur in Suid-Afrika (Jan­uary 1982)

DIS­AS­TER RELIEF. A po­lice Land Rover wades through the mud. The ar­chive photo was taken a few days af­ter the flood, when clear­ing op­er­a­tions had al­ready be­gun. Ka­roo Bil­tong (pic­tured right) is housed in one of the few build­ings that sur­vived the 1981 flood.

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