April 1929 – The Worst Flood in Tasmanian History
In April 1929, the worst flood in Tasmanian history hit the Launceston area, lasting several days.
Rain Moves In
Weather patterns moving across the Bass Strait from the Mainland caused weather stations in Burnie to predict extreme rainfalls in North East Tasmania. Intense rains and high winds continued for most of the night and the following few days, beginning Wednesday 3rd April, and continuing through to Saturday. The Burnie and Ulverstone areas recorded 500 mm of rainfall in three days. In the north east town of Mathinna, 337 mm fell in 24 hours on 5th April.
Briseis Dam Fails
On Thursday 4th April, the newly-built Briseis Dam, on the Cascade River, above the town of Derby, gave way under the weight of the heavy rains. The breaking of the dam resulted in the build-up of water flooding the Cascade River.
The resultant torrent from the broken Dam rushed down the narrow gorge of the Cascade River for three miles to nearby populated areas, carrying with it thousands of tons of debris, washing away trees, boulders and mud. The weight of the water and debris caused an unstoppable wall of water which overwhelmed the populated areas.
Streets in Launceston Flooding
The forecast was for continuing heavy rain. By afternoon on Thursday the 4th, gutters in Launceston were overflowing and in some areas flooding brought traffic to at standstill. The North and South Esk Rivers were already raging as people headed home from work. Reports from the river catchment areas where alarming. The downpour was so loud that a meeting called by the mayor to organize a possible evacuation was almost impossible to hear.
By Friday morning the rivers were rising rapidly, and rain continued to pour down unabated. The Examiner newspaper’s printing presses began printing thousands of single sheet supplements with evacuation instructions. They were quickly distributed through the threatened areas by senior students from the Wellington Square School. Streets were already awash, and the hope that the low tide would drain the city was dashed by the overwhelming flood waters.
The destruction of the Duck Reach power station and gas pipelines plunged the city into darkness.
The Evacuation Begins at 2am
From 1.30 to 2am the Post Office bell tolled, signalling an evacuation. By this time much of Inveresk and Newstead and all of Invermay where under water. Hundreds of vehicles escaped across the two bridges carrying refugees and the few possessions they could carry. They assembled at evacuation centres set up in the Albert Hall and Invermay State School
Evacuations continued through Saturday by boat, the only remaining way to travel.
On Monday the 8th April three thousand people had been moved from Invermay, Inveresk and Margaret Street. Four thousand had been evacuated from surrounding areas. Longford, where 400 homes were abandoned, was the worst affected country district.
The damage was extensive. Two thousand homes and buildings were damaged or washed away. Two suspension bridges over the Gorge were swept away.
Many road and rail bridges were washed away, including the rail bridges over the Forth, Blythe and Black Rivers, and road bridges at Perth, Scamander, Avoca and Fingal. Roads and railways were washed out between Ross and Tunbridge.
The wharves were made useless by silt and debris. It was weeks before the affected areas were cleared enough for rebuilding and repairs to begin.
Reports of the death toll vary, but were between 14 and 22, eight of which were from a car going off a bridge into a flooded river.
A Long, Painful Recovery
As the disaster occurred in the midst of a global recession, rebuilding was a long and painful process. Loss of confidence resulted in banks refusing to lend money to people who had already exhausted business and personal savings. Between 1928 and 1933 the city’s total trade fell twenty-nine percent. It was 1940 before Launceston recovered from the full effects.
The flood of 1929 was considerably above the level identified as a 100 year flood; or a once a century event. Markers on telegraph poles in Invermay, Inveresk and Newstead highlight the impact of this catastrophic flood.
The disaster brought into focus the need for a flood levee system, although the 10kms of concrete flood protection was not completed until the 1960s.