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As KZN once again prepared itself for heavy rains towards the end of June, the first flash floods saw a 51-year-old Pinetown man swept away in his car, narrowly escaping death by climbing a tree.

In KwaZulu-Natal, a province still recovering from extensive flooding in 2022, strong winds and heavy rain once again caused water levels to begin rising on 27 June, and over the next few days, a tornado and flash flooding would cause several fatalities.

“The flooding was more isolated than last year, but still covered a large area of Durban and surrounding areas. The intensity was, in my opinion, greater, but the duration was perhaps less,” says Clifford Ireland, NSRI KwaZulu-Natal Regional Representative.


At 8.32pm that Tuesday, NSRI Durban duty crew were activated following reports from S.T.A.R.T. (Specialised Tactical Accident Rescue Team) who were responding to a man stuck in a tree on the Umbilo River, near to Heaton Nicholls Drive, Pinetown. NSRI Durban swift water rescue swimmers sprung into action, while the Station 5 (Durban) rescue vehicle towed its JetRib rescue craft to the scene. Netcare 911 ambulance services and eThekwini Fire and Rescue Services also responded promptly.

It later emerged that at least four vehicles had been washed off bridges along Umbilo River in the heavy downpour. One of those vehicles had struck a tree, and become lodged against it. The driver, a 51-year-old local male, managed to free himself from the vehicle and climbed the tree to escape the fast flowing river.

“If he had stayed in his car, he most certainly would have drowned,” says Clifford. “The car became completely submerged during the flood.”

Indeed, when rescue crew arrived on the scene, the river had broken its banks and the car appeared to be wrapped around the tree. The Heaton Nicholl Drive-side of the Umbilo River was under heavy floods – the bridge was at least a meter under fast flowing water.

NSRI swift water rescue swimmers approached the scene from the M13 Freeway side, north of the casualty, and from there the man could be seen high in the tree with flood waters washing around the tree and over his vehicle, which was on its side.

Working quickly, safety ropes were set up and a rescue swimmer entered the chest-deep water, managing to reach the man where he was. After a life-jacket had been fastened, the swimmer then secured the man to himself and they entered the water using a safety rope that had been attached to the opposite river bank, and ferry-glided through the water. Upon reaching the river bank, the NSRI, eThekwini Fire and Rescue Services and S.T.A.R.T. rescue members assisted them from the fast flowing river.

Once safely out of danger the man was medically assessed by paramedics, but was thankfully unharmed, and subsequently driven home by the NSRI.


Flash floods are more frequent

Climate change is exacerbating both water scarcity and water-related hazards such as floods, according to UNICEF. In South Africa, this can be observed in the flooding in KwaZulu-Natal in both 2022 and 2023, as well as in various other locations like Parys, Free State, and Coffee Bay in the Eastern Cape.

The NSRI appeals to motorists and pedestrians not to cross over roadway bridges that are flooded and not to try to negotiate water-logged roadways.

“It is difficult to tell just by looking at the water if a bridge is safe to cross, as you can’t see how deep it is,” says Clifford. “The first rule is: if you have any doubts about safety or the depth of the water, don’t cross. The second rule is: any water that is deeper than the lowest point of your car and is fast flowing should not be crossed, as it will push on your car, even the tires, and your car may start to float, lose traction with the ground and be washed down the river. Just don’t do it.”

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