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From the Archives, 1972: Chaos as floods batter Melbourne

Three inches of rain deluged the city area between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. — just as the peak hour rush was starting. The storm caused one of the worst traffic jams ever.

By 4.45 p.m. waves were spraying over the tops of parking meters in Elizabeth Street. They caused hundreds of thousands of dollars’ damage to shops and stock.

The waves were driven by 34 mph winds. In parts of Elizabeth Street the water was four feet deep.

White-capped waves lifted cars bodily, turned them about, and swept them away.

Policemen rolled up their trousers to rescue shoppers swept off their feet by the brown floodwaters.

Trains and trams stopped. Drenched shoppers huddled in doorways and stood on council seats to escape the floods. They saw:

  • Floating cars nudge stationary trams;
  • A motorist in Flinders Street discard his trousers and set out to recover his floating car in his underpants;
  • A middle-aged woman pulled to safety after she had fallen into deep water at a spot where a manhole cover had been washed away;
  • A case of bananas from an Elizabeth Street fruit barrow rush towards Flinders Street station.
An umbrella isn't much use against the elements as a pedestrian becomes stranded on a bench at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Bourke Street.

An umbrella isn’t much use against the elements as a pedestrian becomes stranded on a bench at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Bourke Street.Credit:Neville Bowler

When the downpour turned to drizzle Just after 5.30 p.m. one of the biggest traffic jams in years began in the still flooded streets. Stalled and abandoned cars made the jam worse.

It was still going at 8.30 p.m. Traffic lights became useless as intersections clogged up.

Late last night tram and train services were still disrupted. Railway men were working through the night to restore services for the morning peak hour.

The downpour was heaviest in Carlton, Brunswick, Fitzroy, Richmond and the inner city.

Worst hit areas in the city were Elizabeth Street, which became a white-capped river running at about 12 knots, Flinders, Spencer, Queen and William streets.

Water lapped into shops, ruining goods. Near Queen Street roundabout a refrigerator containing 1000 lb. of crayfish came loose from the wall of a fish shop and was still floating hours later.

No serious injuries were reported to police. But all 50 suburban ambulances were in use at the height of the storm.

The RACV received 1200 calls In the four hours after the storm.

Home-bound workers brave the surging flood waters at the corner of Flinders Lane and Elizabeth Street.

Home-bound workers brave the surging flood waters at the corner of Flinders Lane and Elizabeth Street. Credit:Neville Bowler

The SEC reported blackouts in Abbotsford, Burnley and Kew.

The Board of Works was called to Nicholson Street, Carlton, and Westgarth Street, Fitzroy, as gas mains burst and large holes appeared in roads.

Firemen answered 45 calls caused by floodwaters short-circuiting thermal fire alarms.

Fire damaged two houses in Northcote when lightning struck a gas main.

With traffic in chaos, many people walked home. Men rolled up their trousers and women went barefoot.

As the storm cleared, stalled cars were manhandled on to footpaths. Many onlookers, who half an hour earlier had watched waves break over the roofs of Holdens and Falcons, just stared.

In Kingsway, boys hindered traffic by swimming. In St. Kilda Road, a youth “hung five” on his surfboard In the service lane.

Undeterred North Melbourne footballers on a training run waded through knee-deep water in Clarendon Street, running shoes knotted around their necks.

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The PMG late last night was pumping water from the GPO basement.

Shopkeepers were mopping up along the city’s main streets. At least one shop front was damaged by floating cars.

Hotels were busy after the storm, serving those who came first for refuge and stayed to drink. Sodden drinkers took off their shoes and dried them out on bars.

“Once they get the taste for it, they’ll stand up to anything,” Mia Horst, a city bar maid, said.

An Elizabeth Street fruit vendor said: “Our barrow’s been washed away and got stuck on that PMG box there.

“That’s five floods we’ve had now — one before the war, one after, one since and two this bloody week.”

A shoe store owner said he had lost about $10,000 worth of stock from three stores.

In a city book shop the high water mark stained paperbacks displayed three feet above the floor.

The Railways delayed the Spirit of Progress for 25 minutes, then stopped it at Donnybrook, 20 miles from Melbourne, to take on a passenger who had been caught in flood-bound traffic.

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“We’re only human,” said a railways spokesman.

A Weather Bureau spokesman described the downpour as “an ordinary but intense thunder storm”.

The storm brought moderate hail, driving winds, thunder and lightning, and a total of 3.25 inches of rain in an hour and 25 minutes.

It boosted the February rainfall to 773 points — the wettest February since records began in 1855.

And today’s weather? The bureau says there is a possibility of more thunder storms this after- noon. But the weather should clear by the weekend.

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