The fate of entire village populations in rural Mozambique remained unknown yesterday as rescue workers tried desperately to reach thousands of people still trapped in rising floodwaters unleashed by Cyclone Idai.
Witnesses told of corpses floating down swollen rivers and aerial footage showed families perched on rooftops and in the upper branches of submerged trees days after Idai tore through southern Africa.
Britain pledged £12 million ($22.19 million) in aid and flew tents and shelter kits into Mozambique to help an international rescue operation set up in the flooded port city of Beira, that often seemed in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the disaster.
With 90 per cent of the buildings in Mozambique’s fourth city damaged or destroyed, aid workers struggled to respond to the basic needs of Beira’s 500,000 people, most of whom have neither shelter nor food and water.
But there was a far greater concern for those who lived in villages in the cyclone’s path, many of which have been inundated by flash floods and the waters of rivers that burst their banks.
“Many people are in a desperate situation, fighting for their lives at the moment, sitting on rooftops, in trees and other elevated areas,” said Christophe Bouleriac, of the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
People spoke of seeing “hundreds” of corpses floating down swollen rivers and hearing screams from people clinging to tree branches suspended over potentially crocodile-infested waters six days after Idai made landfall.
South Africa’s army contributed helicopters and India contributed navy ships, while local fishermen and small boat owners made repeated trips in their canoes to rescue the stranded.
A Zimbabwean living in Mozambique reportedly strung 20-litre containers to the back of his boat for the rescue to cling to as for three days he moved from tree to tree and rooftop to rooftop rescuing survivors. Even these Herculean efforts seemed to barely make a difference.
Aid workers said they had been forced to prioritise, rescuing children and pregnant women from some trees but being forced to leave others where they were.
The death toll from the disaster officially rose to more than 350, some 200 in Mozambique and the remainder in the highlands of eastern Zimbabwe and Malawi. But how many may actually have died is unknown, with unconfirmed reports of hundreds dead in just a handful of villages outside Beira alone.
“Everyone is doubling, tripling, quadrupling whatever they were planning,” said Caroline Haga, of the Red Cross. “It’s much larger than anyone could ever anticipate.”
Even though it did not bear the brunt of the cyclone, Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani district suffered destruction unprecedented in its modern history. Perence Shiri, the acting defence minister who visited the area, said it resembled “the aftermath of a full-scale war”.
Nearly all approaches to bridges in the region were reportedly washed away while the appearance of sinkholes made many roads impassable.
Another minister said bodies had been washed down swollen rivers across the border into Mozambique.
As in Mozambique, the rescue effort was often left to private individuals.
Doug van Der Ruit, a local businessman, and Bob Henson, a former farmer, have flown repeated missions in their small helicopter ferrying medicines and evacuating victims along the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border.
“We don’t know how many are missing, nor how many have died,” said Henson, who lives in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “But we hope we saved some. Hundreds of houses were smashed down. We flew over funerals.”
Many of the victims, including those who need urgent medical attention, cannot get to nearby hospitals, he added, because of impassable roads and collapsed bridges. Among those the two men flew out of the affected area was a dying woman in labour.
Van Der Ruit witnessed some of the devastation wrought by the cyclone first hand, saying he saw large chunks break off surrounding mountains and come crashing down.
“We heard this roaring,” he said. “Rocks falling everywhere – no thunder or lightning, just sheets of water, and wind and roaring.”
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