Women dry clothes recovered from rubble on March 19 2019 in the Ngangu township of Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, after the area was hit by cyclone Idai. Picture: AFP/ZINYANGE AUNTONY
Women dry clothes recovered from rubble on March 19 2019 in the Ngangu township of Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, after the area was hit by cyclone Idai. Picture: AFP/ZINYANGE AUNTONY

Beira — The death toll from a cyclone that smashed into Mozambique and Zimbabwe has risen to more than 300 as rescuers race against the clock to help survivors and the UN leads 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 about 100 people had died but the toll could be three times that figure.

The UN, meanwhile, said one of the worst storms to hit Southern Africa in decades had also unleashed a humanitarian crisis in Malawi, affecting nearly one-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 at night.

Air force personnel from Mozambique and SA were drafted in to fly rescue missions, while nongovernmental organisation Rescue SA 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 said, adding the organisation was trying to hire more helicopters.

‘Like a tsunami’

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, about 60km northwest of Beira, Jose Batio and his wife and children survived by climbing onto a roof. But a lot of their neighbours “were swept away by the water”, he said.

“Water came like a tsunami and destroyed most things. We were prisoners on the roof,” he said 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% of the city of 500,000 people.

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 about 8m 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 in the world, was also hit by deadly floods in 2000 that killed 800 people and left at least 50,000 homeless.

Zimbabwe toll

The storm also lashed eastern Zimbabwe, leaving about 100 dead and a death toll that could rise to as much as 300, local government minister July Moyo said after a cabinet briefing.

“I understand there are bodies which are floating, some have floated all the way to Mozambique,” he said.

At least 217 others are missing and 44 stranded, officials said.

Worst hit was Chimanimani in Manicaland, an eastern province that borders Mozambique.

Families started burying their dead on Monday, as injured survivors filled up the hospitals, a reporter said. Military helicopters were airlifting people to Mutare, the largest city near Chimanimani.

The storm swept away homes and bridges, devastating huge areas in what defence minister Perrance Shiri said “resembles the aftermath of a full-scale war”.

Some roads were swallowed by massive sinkholes, while bridges were ripped to pieces by flash floods.

Aid ramps up

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said it was mobilising aid for about 600,000 people, saying the world did not yet appreciate the scale of the “massive disaster”.

So far, it has dispatched more than five tonnes of emergency provisions to the affected areas.

“WFP aims to support 500,000-600,000 people in the coming weeks,” spokesperson Herve Verhoosel told reporters in Geneva.

“I don’t think that the world [has] realised yet the scale of the problem.”

In Malawi, 920,000 people have been affected by the cyclone and 82,000 people have been displaced, the UN said.

“The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has deployed resources to support assessments and information management, and Unicef is deploying additional supplies to affected areas including tents, water and sanitation supplies and learning materials to affected children,” it said.