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1929 Flood: Launceston's darkest days

The Great Flood of 1929 remains the most deadly flood disaster in Tasmania’s history.

Ninety years ago wild weather and rain across Northern Tasmania started in late March and intensified in early April with 18 inches (457mm) of rain recorded between April 3 and 6.

It is described in Launceston Weather Office records as an "outstanding storm" event.

Bureau of Meteorology records note that the South Esk River rose to over 30ft (9 metres) above the summer level at Fingal and to about 60ft (18 metres) at Evandale, where it was 6ft (1.8 metres) higher than the previous recorded flood of August 1852.

“Considerable portions of the township of Longford and of the suburbs of Inveresk and Invermay and other low-lying parts of Launceston were flooded to a depth of upwards of 10ft (3 metres).”

As floodwaters approached Launceston The Examiner of April 5, 1929, warned that a record flood was now likely. The Scamander Bridge had already been swept away and a meeting of civic leaders in Launceston made emergency plans.

A few days after the Albert Hall had hosted the annual Launceston Competitions the city council announced that the auditorium would be made available as a refuge centre.

“Indications are that there will be a continuance of wet weather and that the flood waters will increase. A tremendous volume of water is expected in the Gorge at Launceston shortly,” The Examiner said.

The arrival of the flood crest and its terrible power in the South Esk River however seems to have taken authorities by surprise.

Staff were still working in the Duck Reach Power Station when the flood crest hit at 11.23 pm on April 5. The turbines had to be hurriedly turned off as water started to swirl in to the building.

Launceston was plunged into darkness as water rose rapidly to about three metres inside the power station and blew out the windows and doors.

The suspension bridge at Duck Reach was swept away and the power station workers had to scramble to safety up the steep track behind the power station.

Early on Saturday, April 6, the torrent coming down the South Esk River through the Cataract Gorge met floodwaters sweeping down the North Esk River.

At 1.30am the Post Office clock and Launceston fire station bell tolled out the disturbing signal that the water had got beyond the Tamar River embankments and that Inveresk and Invermay were in danger.

About 4000 people had to be evacuated from their homes and The Examiner later reported that the “complete absence of electric illumination” had made the task extremely difficult.

Church halls across the city were opened up to provide temporary accommodation for those driven from their homes by the rising floodwaters.

“The Tragedy of the Waters” was The Examiner’s headline on Saturday, April 6, 1929.

“The death-roll resulting from the devastating floods which have swept the northern part of the state has been increased by the tragic loss of life near Gawler on Thursday night, when eight out of nine of a family party perished owing to the driver failing to observe that the abutment of the bridge had been replaced by a channel of water.”

At least 25 people were reported to have died in the floods.

When the Briseis dam at Derby collapsed 14 people were killed, a baby girl drowned at Hagley and four people disappeared at Avoca.

The Examiner wrote that the passage of the floodwaters through the valley of the South Esk River has caused incalculable damage to property, heavy losses of stock, and great suffering and inconvenience to residents of the adjacent areas.

The Weekly Courier on Wednesday, April 10, 1929, wrote that: “Tasmania has been in the deadly grip of a flood so cataclysmic in its fury as to completely overshadow any such visitation in its history,”

“It was as appalling in its suddenness as it was vehement in its force.

“The loss of life, the wholesale damage to public and private property, the demolition of bridges and the dislocation of transport and communications have been sufficient to test the calibre of the most courageous community.”

The cost of the flood damage was estimated to be in the millions of pounds.

Launceston had experienced several major floods before 1929.

The biggest was in December 1863 when an estimated 4625 cumecs (cubic metres per second) of water raged down the Gorge.

In 1929 the estimated peak flood flow was put at 4250 cumecs in the South Esk River and 567 cumecs in the North Esk River.

In more recent times the flood of June 1969 saw the flow through the Gorge peak at 2670 cumecs and in June 2016 it was 2375 cumecs of water from the South Esk River and approximately 800 cumecs from the North Esk River.

It was the 1929 disaster that led to the decision to construct Launceston’s system of flood levees.

(Written for the Launceston Historical Society and first published in The Examiner on 4 April 2019. Julian Burgess is a former associate editor of The Examiner and author.)

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