BEIRA, Mozambique (AFP) – The death toll from a cyclone that smashed into Mozambique and Zimbabwe rose to more than 300 as rescuers raced against the clock to help survivors and the United Nations (UN) led the charge to provide aid.
“We already have more than 200 dead, and nearly 350,000 people are at risk,” Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi announced on Tuesday, while the government in Zimbabwe said around 100 people had died but the toll could be three times that figure.
The UN, meanwhile, said that one of the worst storms to hit southern Africa in decades had also unleashed a humanitarian crisis in Malawi, affecting nearly a million people and forcing more than 80,000 from their homes.
Four days after Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall, emergency teams in central Mozambique fanned out in boats and helicopters, seeking to pluck survivors from roofs and treetops in an inland sea of floodwater, sometimes in the dead of night.
Air force personnel from Mozambique and South Africa were drafted in to fly rescue missions, while an NGO called Rescue South Africa said it had picked up 34 people since Friday night, using three helicopters.
“It is the only way to access the people that are stranded,” Rescue SA’s Abrie Senekal told AFP, saying the NGO was trying to hire more helicopters.
Ian Scher, who heads Rescue SA, said the helicopter teams were having to make difficult decisions.
“Sometimes we can only save two out of five, sometimes we drop food and go to someone else who’s in bigger danger,” he said.
“We just save what we can save and the others will perish.”
In Nhamatanda, some 60 kilometres northwest of Beira, 27-year-old Jose Batio and his wife and children survived by climbing onto a roof.
But a lot of their neighbours “were swept by the water,” he said.
“Water came like a tsunami and destroyed most things. We were prisoners on the roof,” he told AFP after they were rescued by boat.
The city of Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city and a major port, was immediately cut off after the storm. According to the Red Cross, the cyclone damaged or destroyed 90 per cent of the city of half a million people.
President Nyusi, speaking on Tuesday after attending a Cabinet meeting in the ravaged city, said the confirmed death toll stood at 202 and nearly 350,000 were “at risk”.
The government had declared a national emergency and ordered three days of national mourning, he said.
“We are in an extremely difficult situation,” Nyusi said, warning of high tides and waves of around eight metres in the coming days.
On Monday, Nyusi had said he feared more than 1,000 had died and more than 100,000 people were in danger.
Mozambique, one of the poorest countries, was also hit by deadly floods in 2000 that killed 800 people and left at least 50,000 homeless.
The storm also lashed eastern Zimbabwe, leaving around 100 dead, a toll that could be as much as 300, local government minister July Moyo said after a Cabinet briefing.