Floods are the most expensive natural disasters in Australia.1 They hit hard on individuals and communities, with social, economic and environmental consequences. Such was the case in the Manning catchment in 1978.
Midday, Monday 20 March 1978 the Manning River at Taree hit a flood peak level of 5.45m just 15cms below the record flood of 1929.2 Warnings were first aired on radio station 2RE at 9:29am on Sunday with evacuation warnings given from 4pm onwards. Having lived through regular floods, many residents chose to stay at home to look after their properties.3
The Gibbons family at Taree Estate were hosting a small dinner party on Sunday night when they heard an unusual sound. The river had broken its banks and was rolling across Taree Estate in waves. Crossing the Figtree Bridge, Graham Gibbons and friends helped the Sawyer family to evacuate managing three trips before the Figtree Bridge washed away at midnight.4 Meanwhile people scrambled to save their livestock and secure shops and homes.
During the emergency seventy homes in Taree and Wingham were evacuated with air force helicopters winching residents to safety from their rooftops. Escaping flood waters left a muddy stain extending 10kms out to sea at Harrington and Old Bar.5
Afterwards residents remember a quiet, eerie sound. The damage stretched along the Manning River catchment from Gloucester to Manning Point. It resembled a disaster zone with destroyed bridges, silt covered roads, disrupted septic tanks and drowned beasts. Many businesses lost merchandise and farmers lost crops and livestock.6
People later expressed surprise at the swiftness of the flooding. SES division controller John May explained “this is a coastal river system which has characteristics of very fast rises and also very fast falls in contrast to inland rivers.” Thankfully no fatalities were recorded and stories of survival endure today.7
Restoring vegetation and wetlands throughout the Manning catchment, especially on the floodplain and river banks, will help capture rainwater and prevent erosion, reducing the impact of future floods.
Author: Janine Roberts
Supported by MidCoast Council’s Manning River Estuary Coastal Management Program.
1 Office of the QLD Chief Scientist, https://www.chiefscientist.qld.gov.au/publications/understanding-floods/flood-consequences
2 Manning River Times, 21 March 1978, 1; Greater Taree City Local Flood Plan, https://www.ses.nsw.gov.au/media/1689/plan-greater-taree-lfp-feb-2015-endorsed.pdf
3 Manning River Times, 29 March 1978, 7.
4 Oral history from Graham Gibbons, recorded 29 August 2019; Manning River Times, 21 March 1978, 3.
5 Manning River Times, 21 March 1978, 1.
6 Manning River Times, 29 March 1978, 1.
7 Manning River Times, 29 March 1978, 7.