Locals affected by Cyclone Idai leave their home in a canoe during floods in Buzi district, outside Beira, Mozambique, March 21 2019. Picture:REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Locals affected by Cyclone Idai leave their home in a canoe during floods in Buzi district, outside Beira, Mozambique, March 21 2019. Picture:REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Beira/Harare/Chimanimani — Rescue workers widened their search in Mozambique and Zimbabwe on Thursday for survivors of devastating floods following a cyclone that ripped through Southern Africa a week ago, killing hundreds and destroying buildings and farmland.

The death toll in Mozambique has risen to 217 and around 15,000 people, many of them very ill, still need to be rescued, Land & environment minister Celso Correia said, though rescue workers continue to find bodies and the toll could rise sharply.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe, the death toll jumped to 139. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which is coordinating food drops across the region, said 200,000 people in Zimbabwe would need urgent food aid for three months.

In Malawi, 56 people have been confirmed dead so far.

A key priority now is pushing into remaining areas affected by the flooding that have not yet been explored in search of people needing rescue, said Connor Hartnady, leader of a South African rescue task force.

Helicopters ferried people, many plucked from roofs and tree-tops where they had fled to evade the turbid waters and reddish-brown mud, to the port city of Beira, the main headquarters for the huge rescue operation.

One helicopter returned with four children and two women, rescued from a small football stadium in an otherwise submerged village. One young child, with a broken leg, was alone and hung limply from exhaustion as rescuers laid him on the grass before moving him into an ambulance.

An elderly woman sat, dazed, nearby with two of her grandchildren. All three were unharmed, but the children had lost their mother.

With flood waters starting to recede, the priority now is to deliver food and other supplies to people rather than take people out of the affected areas, although that is also still happening, Correia said.

 About 3,000 people have so far been rescued in Mozambique, which declared a state of emergency on Monday.

Fight against the clock

“Our biggest fight is against the clock,” Correia told a news conference, adding that authorities were using all means possible to save lives and were working 24 hours a day.

Cyclone Idai lashed Beira with winds of up to 170km/h  a week ago, then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi, flattening buildings and putting the lives of millions at risk.

The WFP stepped up airdrops of high-energy biscuits to isolated pockets of people stranded by the floodwaters and delivered food parcels to displaced families sheltering in schools and other public buildings in the town of Dondo, 45km northeast of Beira.

Beira, a low-lying city of 500,000 people, is home to Mozambique’s second-largest port and serves as a gateway to landlocked countries in the region.

South African team leader Hartnady said another priority on Thursday was moving people from a basketball stadium near the Buzi river — one of the worst affected areas — to a village on higher ground, northwest of Beira, where aid organisations are setting up a temporary camp with a capacity of up to 600.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, who declared three days of national mourning starting on Wednesday, has said the eventual death toll from the cyclone and ensuing floods could rise to more than 1,000.

Mozambique’s tiny $13bn economy is still recovering from a currency collapse and debt default.