Monday 14 October 2019

Mozambique disaster death toll 'will soar to thousands'

Rescue mission: Survivors of Cyclone Idai arrive by boat at an evacuation centre in Beira
Rescue mission: Survivors of Cyclone Idai arrive by boat at an evacuation centre in Beira

Rachael Alexander

As flood waters began to recede in parts of Mozambique yesterday, fears rose that the death toll could soar as bodies are revealed.

The number of deaths could be beyond the 1,000 predicted earlier this week, said Elhadj As Sy, the secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In addition to worries about the number of dead, Mr As Sy said the humanitarian needs were great.

"They are nowhere near the scale and magnitude of the problem," he said. "And I fear we will be seeing more in the weeks and months ahead, and we should brace ourselves."

Thousands of people were making a grim voyage toward the city of Beira, which although 90pc destroyed has become a centre for frantic rescue efforts throughout the region.

Hundreds of corpses lay washed by the roadsides; others bobbed past, carried by the torrents of floodwater towards the sea.

But what will forever haunt Graham Taylor were the screams and sounds of sobbing that echoed through the dark night from those clinging to life in the upper branches of nearby trees. The scale of the disaster unleashed by Cyclone Idai remains unknown.

But Mr Taylor, a stranded motorist who survived, indicated the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding in one of the world's poorest countries.

Caught in the floods unleashed by Idai after it made landfall near the port of Beira last week, Mr Taylor, a former Zimbabwean farmer living in Mozambique, abandoned his car on Monday and walked 24km along a raised road to safety in the village of Nhamatanda.

His six-hour walk revealed a scene of "carnage and death".

"People were on the rooftops and in the eucalyptus, mango and cashew nut trees," he said.

On dryer land, hundreds of survivors searched in the dark for missing family members.

By the light of his mobile phone, he counted bodies as he walked, estimating he saw up to 400 floating in the water or washed up by the current onto the road, where survivors and relatives stood over the corpses, weeping in grief.

He believed the government's early estimate of 1,000 dead would prove woefully short. "I'm guessing, but it is well into the thousands - four, five, six thousand", he said.

Mr Taylor's brief journey took him along one solitary stretch of road in a vast area of devastation. What has happened elsewhere is still anyone's guess.

Volunteer pilots, the armed forces of South Africa and Tanzania and international aid agencies on Thursday stepped up desperate attempts to rescue tens of thousands still stranded by the floods.

The US government announced its military would join the effort; Britain has flown in tents and rescue kits as well as pledging £12m (€14m) for the humanitarian mission being mounted to feed and house hundreds of thousands who are homeless.

Yet for many who survived the initial onslaught of Idai, it is already too late. A volunteer South African pilot at Beira's airport said he had seen up to 250 people stranded on a small hill surrounded by floodwater after flying south of the city.

But by the time a rescue mission could be co-ordinated - delayed, the pilot said, after a local government official insisted on commandeering a plane to see the scene for himself - it was too late. The hill had been flooded over, with everyone presumed drowned.

Instead, rescue efforts were often left to the surviving residents of Mozambique's villages.

Mr Taylor said he saw scores of people forming human chains in the torrential water to walk out people who had been trapped for days.

Nothing has come to symbolise Mozambique's disaster as much as its tree people.

Dumping two feet of water onto the plains of Mozambique, the cyclone caused rivers to burst their banks and unleashed flash floods.

When the first torrents of water flooded the villages, often with little warning beyond the roar of the torrent, those who managed to scramble to safety saw the trees as their only hope of salvation.

Three days later, the trees had been transformed from places of refuge into dangerous prisons. Snakes slithered along branches, crocodiles lurked in the waters below. But the greatest enemy was weakness from lack of food and exhaustion.

Sleep was the greatest danger: succumbing to it meant being tipped into the currents below and few can swim.

To the south of Beira, there was no prospect of escape. Where there had been dry land just a week ago stood the world's 45th largest lake, a 3,150 sq km stretch of water created overnight.

Irish Independent

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