Mozambique rescue efforts intensify as full scale of Idai tragedy unfolds


The humanitarian emergency following Cyclone Idai could worsen over the coming hours as continued rainfall in Mozambique and in Zimbabwe could mean dams have to be opened, reflooding the Buzi and Pungue rivers which flow out to the coastal city of Beira.

The continued rains, which are only expected to ease on Friday, are also hampering relief efforts, with 11 helicopters stationed at Beira airport grounded from dawn until 10:00 on Wednesday morning, a source in the city told Zitamar News.

Various organisations are collecting non-perishable food items, clothing, and blankets in Maputo, with a container ship due to arrive in Maputo Port on Wednesday or Thursday to take donations to Beira.

A control centre for the rescue effort has been set up at Beira airport, which was itself severely damaged by the cyclone but which is now open for flights, and has electricity and mobile phone reception.

Helicopter and boat missions are being coordinated by the World Food Programme and by South African relief organisation Rescue South Africa, in close collaboration with Mozambique’s state disaster management agency, INGC.

Beira itself is suffering severe shortages of food and drinking water, according to Ben van Vyk, a South African working for a multinational company in the city. He told Zitamar there is only one supermarket open, and its shelves are empty. Meanwhile, prices of basic foods have gone “through the roof”. The few fuel stations which are still working have run out of petrol, though diesel is still available, he said.

Electricity was expected to be restored late on Wednesday to hospitals and the water pumping system. Utility EDM flew in nine generators by cargo plane from Maputo on Wednesday morning to power critical services in the city.

Inland from Beira, the scale of the flooding is catastrophic. WFP spokesperson Gerald Bourke described “inland oceans, running for mile after mile, with water above tree level.”

According to the UN, an aerial survey showed that more than 50 kilometers of land in Buzi town had been submerged – with flood waters reaching eight metres deep. That situation could be exacerbated if the Chicamba dam in Manica province is forced to open its gates today or tomorrow, which flows into the Revue, a tributary of the River Buzi.

Logistics hub isolated

Beira is normally a significant port and logistics hub for the region, but all the major logistics companies in the city suffered significant damage when the cyclone hit, Van Vyk told Zitamar.

An unconfirmed statement from Cornelder, the company which operates the port, said the port suffered limited damages, with the general cargo terminal and container terminal expected to return to operations on Wednesday or Thursday.

However, Zitamar understands that the storm brought in large amounts of silt to the channel leading to the port, partially undoing a significant dredging effort completed last year. More dredging will now be needed to allow large ships to enter the port.

Movitel was the first mobile network to reestablish voice calls in Beira, followed on Wednesday morning by state-owned Tmcel. However, none of Mozambique’s three networks are yet able to provide data services in the city.

The majority of Beira’s population lives in precarious houses built of bamboo, mud, and metal sheeting – which were almost completely obliterated in the storm. Thousands of people are seeking refuge in schools, churches, and in makeshift shelters on the city’s streets.

Opposition party Renamo said a delegation had visited Beira, finding that the city’s morgue was full and closed to new bodies.

The latest death toll from the cyclone provided by the INGC is 202, but that is expected to rise sharply once the flood waters recede and the full impact on Beira, its surrounding area, and the whole Beira corridor can be assessed.

President Nyusi said he saw bodies floating down the Pungue and Buzi rivers when he conducted an aerial survey of the area, while photos are emerging of people crowded onto rooftops and patches of high ground, waiting to be rescued. The government declared a state of emergency and a three-day national mourning period during the Council of Ministers session, relocated to the town of Beira on Tuesday afternoon.

“Many people are in desperate situations, several thousand are fighting for their lives at the moment sitting on rooftops, in trees and other elevated areas,” UNICEF spokesperson Christophe Boulierac said on Tuesday. “This includes families and obviously many children.”

IPSS, an agency working with Rescue SA, said on its Facebook page that it managed to rescue 167 people on Tuesday, with the help of helicopters from the South African air force.

But limited daylight hours and continued heavy rainfall means many people are not being reached in time. Zitamar heard of one helicopter mission which had to turn back at nightfall, leaving people in trees which had been swept away when they returned the following morning.

Harvest destroyed

The cyclone and rains have also devastated crops across the central provinces, which were ready to be harvested. Drought has led to failed harvests in the past two years, and people have little in reserve.

The district of Gondola, in Manica province, was not flooded but most homes were destroyed by the winds brought by Cyclone Idai. It also destroyed the area’s corn crop which was almost ready to be harvested, according to Christopher Sweeney, an American missionary working at a school in the district.

“I have been through a number of these living in New Orleans. I can safely say this was the real deal,” he said. “We have major damage at the school. However, most of my workers lost their houses entirely. It will be a long road to recovery and rebuild after this one.

“We are right at the point of harvesting corn and many will lose their corn crops because of this storm. This will be a very difficult year for the people of central Mozambique.”

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