Harold Casemaster’s immersion to plug Riverland storm drains in 1956 floods a model by 2022

After four hours submerged in freezing floodwater fixing a storm drain in Renmark, lockmaster and diver Harold Casement emerged a hero.

In the midst of the 1956 Murray River flood, water spilled onto the streets, inundating surrounding roads, homes, and businesses.

As the river grew, so did the risk of floodwaters gushing out of underground pipes and bursting storm drains.

The late Harold Casement was working at the time as a lockmaster at Lock 4 near Loxton, where he frequently dove into the river for maintenance work.

A man smiling, wearing a bathing cap, other men help him out of the water.
Harold Casement submerges himself in the Cobdogla pumping station during the 1956 flood.(Supplied: Berri Barmera Local Heritage Collection)

His diving experience was so great that Harold would eventually be called upon to help manage the devastating flood of 1956, but the man who spent so much time in the water could not swim.

“That was something that nobody could understand, but he didn’t need to swim,” says Harold’s son, Kevin Casement.

Harold’s heavy diving suit was designed for walking on the riverbed, unlike the buoyancy control devices today’s divers use to swim.

Called to plug the flood

In the early hours of a cold winter morning on August 22, 1956, floodwater burst through underground drains and began to flood Renmark’s city center.

Newspaper archives detailing the event reveal the severity of the situation, with the emergency committee called into action to prepare for a possible evacuation of the entire city.

A plan was devised for someone to dive down the drain and plug the pipe with a round, tapered piece of wood and stop the flows of the River Murray filling the streets.

There was only one man for the job.

With the roads to Renmark closed, Harold had to drive from Loxton to Paringa and then ride a railway carriage to reach the location.

A man dressed in a diving suit and submerged in the water.  There is a man on the surface helping him.
Kevin says that just wearing the wetsuit was a physically demanding task for his father.(Supplied: Berri Barmera Local Heritage Collection)

But before embarking underwater, he jumped into his diving suit, his armor.

“It’s a very heavy leather one-piece suit with a bolt-on helmet made of glass and brass,” says Casement.

“Because the suit was filled with air, he had to wear heavy weights around the shoulders and front, and very heavy lead and leather boots to keep it from jumping.”

A team effort to keep the air flowing

Casement said it took a team of responsible townspeople to make sure her father could breathe during his expedition.

“Breathable air was created from an above-ground pump, a big machine,” he says.

“Two people had to physically turn the handles to create air, and someone was always there to make sure they kept pumping.”

Harold spent more than four hours in the freezing flood water in the storm drains, clogging the wooden plugs in the pipes.

Pumps were used to return the flood water to the river, the flooding through the main streets slowly eased, and by noon the emergency situation had been resolved.

Two people reading newspaper clippings at a kitchen table.  They both look down.
Newspaper files show that Harold helped plug the drainage pipes at Renmark and Cobdogla.(ABC Riverland: Sophie Landau)

A diver in demand

But Harold’s diving skills were needed throughout the region, and other low-lying cities were experiencing the same problem.

“I don’t know how often he was called, but he was definitely on the emergency call list,” Casement says.

“Many newspapers show that it stopped further flooding in Renmark and Cobdogla.”

Mr. Casement says he is proud of his father’s contribution to the 1956 flood, but it took a town to protect the region and its people.

“There were a lot of other people doing other things on the flood banks. People were jumping in to repair them,” he says.

“There were a lot of people during the flood who did very important work, but he was just one of them.”

Drain the pain in 2022

Fast forward to 2022 and the Renmark Paringa Council says the storm drainage system isn’t up to scratch.

A bituminous road, with bright orange cones, and a metal fence, with a hose leading into the river.
Pumps are in use on Murray Avenue in Renmark to divert stormwater into the river.(ABC Riverland: Sophie Landau)

The council is plugging the drains to prevent the river from flowing and flooding the streets, recruiting divers to retrace the steps of the late Harold Casement.

Mayor Peter Hunter says the council will seek support to update the system and be better prepared for future flooding.

“What this event has shown us is that the pressure of water wanting to come back behind the banks has been significant,” he said.

“Some of our stormwater pipe network hasn’t been able to service that.

“We wait [the] The state government or even the federal government will come together and help us with that, so we’re better prepared for the next year, five years, 10 years, whatever the next event is.”

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