THE GREAT ST KILDA FLOOD

The day of 7 February 1989 began as usual for that time of year which is to say blisteringly hot. When I drove to work, I did not take my laptop with me, which was for the first time in a week. I had never been able to find time to use the thing, so it was just hogging space and effort on my part. Due to lack of any reason, I did not take a camera either none of the pictures here were taken by me.

The summer heat remained constant all day, even during the rain that fell around lunch-time.

The air-conditioning worked. This fact is something of a marvel. The thing normally delights in breaking down during heat waves, and the highness of the temperature is in direct proportion to the likelihood of a breakdown. No repairmen ever show up at the time this happens, as they do not like heat. They wait for the first cool day before they show up if then.

Chapel Street, the shallow end About four in the afternoon there came some forked lightning out over the bay, followed by local rain. Then we had some impressive thunder. After this, rain descended with a vengeance. (Later on they said that more rain fell on St Kilda in one hour than it normally gets in one year.) Not surprisingly, customers began to stay away. This is not unusual during rain. St Kilda Post Office sits rather on its own, given the gradual moving-away of surrounding businesses over the last hundred years. There are a lack of nearby shops with overhangs for people without umbrellas to arrive dry. Customers stay away during times of rain, and show up all at once when the moisture slacks off, or close of business approaches, whichever comes first. This day was to be different.

Rain fell faster than it could drain away down the gutters. Much faster. (The Board of Works later said that installing a drainage system able to cope with such a downpour would cost millions, and storms like this one were so rare they did not justify the expense.) The roads began to flood.

Hail fell.

Then, against all belief, the rain got worse.

The footpath outside the p.o. vanished underwater. Completely. All sight of the gutter vanished, and a sheet of water extended out from the side of the building towards the middle of the road. The post office vehicle parked outside looked like it was going to float away. The driver was forced to move fast to get some things indoors, when he realised the floor of his car was going under.

The sheet of water now extended from the side of the building clean across the road to the hotel on the other side of Inkerman Street, with no sign of footpaths or road in between. Looking through a street window in Venice, there might be a sight like this. Here, if you wanted to stick your head out in the rain, you could see solid road and footpath further away ... and getting further away all the time.

I still was not thinking in terms of "Hey, this is a flood." There are places in Melbourne where flooding of parts of roads occurs in times of heavy rain, but St Kilda is not one of them.

Anyone wanting to get into the St Kilda Post Office has to climb steps. This is one reason the place is not popular with wheelchairs. On this day it was the reason we all had dry feet (at least for the moment the water level was continuing to rise) and we found ourselves wondering about the much-friendlier-to-the-handicapped National Bank down the street, where one could just stroll in through the door at dead-on ground level. (The staff were sitting on their counter, thinking about there newly-laid carpetting which had been quick to vanish from the view of human ken.)

Then the post-office guttering overloaded catastrophically. Water had to go somewhere, and was not content with just spilling directly off the roof onto the street. It sought and found new places to go, thereby startling those of us below. Be it known that the St Kilda Post Office is a two-storey building, and on the ground floor we were getting water forcibly intruding on us. It started coming down the walls in the customer space, from the ceiling. It came in through the old ventilation ducts. An awful lot of dust and muck had accumulated over the years, so the water that spilled out of those ducts was blackish in colour. (It presented a challenge for the cleaner to remove the stains, in drier times, later.) Water came through the ceiling cornice. Water came down the electric light fixtures. The affected lights were switched off to avoid the possibility of a short.
Prahran (north of St Kilda)
Outside, the water was beginning to lap at the top step. (Just a little bit higher, and it would not be outside for very much longer.) Tables and desks started to get looked at in a new light. From the top step to the wall of the hotel across the road was now a level sheet of rushing water. It was like looking at a river, the illusion of which was spoiled by the occasional passing car. Those passing too near the p.o. side of the road came to a stop due to water in the engine, thus ceasing to be passing traffic. The smart vehicles went to and fro on the far side of the road. I personally saw one driving along the footpath! Trams were stacked along the hill up St Kilda Road, not daring to venture into deeper water toward Carlisle Street.

Saw somebody wading along the road, who fell over and went under. Whoever it was got up again in a hurry. I never heard of anyone drowning, but it would have been possible.

Water really travelled along Inkerman Street. Postmen arriving late back at the office had trouble wheeling their bikes in, almost up to their waists in water, fighting a strong current all the way.

There was a "dip" in the power and the computers went out.

A fire engine (a fire in this weather?), siren wailing, had trouble getting through the moving and motionless traffic at the intersection. There was an abandoned car sticking out of the water near the front door.

One photograph I was shown a week afterwards was a hair-raising sight. It simply showed a certain block of flats, with a smooth sheet of water extending through a fence and right up to the side of the building. The hair-raising part about this otherwise tranquil-looking scene was the knowledge that beyond that fence was a sloping drive-way leading to an underground garage. Cars floated at first, I am told, until they hit the ceiling. Then, after thus setting off the sprinkler systems, they sank, crashing into the floor and other cars.

The rain stopped.

Water was still coming from the ceiling. Bags of mail were moved up off the floor onto tables. The truck which normally came to pick the mail up at this time of day was not going to get through. The mail was going to be late.

The water level began to recede, and the footpath across the road began to become visible.

Then rain fell again.

By now I was ready to go home. My flat is in the bottom of a hollow. Seeing the way a street could fill up like that, I was worried what I would find when I got there. (No worry as it turned out. Only St Kilda copped the part of the downpour with flooding strength. Lower-lying surrounding areas were hit by the drain-off, but my home eight kilometres distant was cosy and dry.)

Water out the front, water out the back. A prickly question arose. How was I going to leave?

During another rain lull or a reduction of it to where an umbrella could keep one dry I noted the shallowest course to my car, rolled up my trouser legs, took off my shoes and socks, and waded for it. The sensation of walking barefoot along a submerged road is best described as slimey and icky.

My car was reasonably dry, being parked on a slope well above the waterline.

Traffic was almost at a standstill, even on manageable roads. Heard one driver tell a pedestrian he had been one and a half hours coming from Port Melbourne.

I got home, eventually. It had been hailing hard when I pulled out of the street where I had parked. There was blue sky overhead when I reached my driveway. Melbourne weather.

The rain that day cost the city $8,000,000.

 Bruce  Barnes
February 1989

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