The day our town drowned


It’s hot in the Karoo with only a few wispy clouds hovering over Laingsburg. Later today the mercury will rise to 36 °C.

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like exactly 30 years ago to the day when 104 townsfolk were swept away by floodwaters and drowned. Some of the victims were taken to muddy graves, their bodies never found. Three-quarters of the town’s buildings were washed away.

Although three decades have passed since the disaster, the survivors and victims’ relatives still recall clearly the seething mass of water that changed their lives forever. This weekend they will gather to remember what it was like on 25 January 1981 when the blessing of rain turned into a curse for the residents of Laingsburg.

Brenda Ameels, now Poole, whose picture appeared in our sister magazine Huisgenoot 10 days after the disaster and whose face became associated with the flood, has a lot to be thankful for.

“People have asked why I didn’t leave the town after the flood,” she says. “I feel there was a reason I survived the disaster; perhaps to inspire others with my story of survival.”

It started raining on a Friday. The previous year the Buffels River had broken its banks but the water soon receded and everyone expected the same thing would happen again. But this time the Baviaans and Soutkloof Rivers that flow into the Buffels River were also in flood.

Two days later, on Sunday morning, news about roads in the district that had become impassable began filtering through to the residents.

Soon after the Reverend Malan Jacobs had conducted the church service Krige Street, which is closest to the river, was under water. By 11 am the road to Ladismith was flooded and the national road passing through Laingsburg was under water at the bridges near the town.

“Everything was in turmoil. The clean-up took years. It was a terrible experience: the dust, the sludge, the rebuilding. But you’re so glad to be alive you grit your teeth and carry on.”

At the Dutch Reformed church which has stood in the town centre for more than 130 years we talk to Dominee Jacobs’ widow, Klara (72).

“He loved people,” she says quietly, “that’s why he simply had to lend a hand at the old-age home.” His body has never been found.

“Before that day the town’s communities were miles apart,” says Connie van der Westhuizen (70), a well-known farmer in the area. “The flood brought us closer together.”

Read more about the tragedy and stories of hope in YOU, 3 February 2011.

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