Cyclone Idai; stories emerging from Mozambique

For the 7 and a bit years of living in central Mozambique on a sugarcane estate in Mafambisse, we were fortunate enough not to experience a cyclone. In the years that we lived there, flooding was common and torrential rain was expected. The region is incredibly flat and sandy. When we lived there, my children were fascinated by hills and rocks in their early years, because there were none where we lived. Mafambisse is about 60 kilometres from Beira. The large sugarcane estate is sandwiched between the Pungwe River and the one and only access road to Beira. The sugar estate employs around 7000 people and is the heart and soul of the area.

Mafambisse Estate, Sofala Province, Mozambique

One week ago, everything changed.

The calm before the storm…

Cyclone Idai, a massive category 4 cyclone with winds reaching 200Km/per hour in places, made landfall directly over the city of Beira. This beast of a storm moved in land, ripping up 100 year old baobab trees and snapping them in half. It flattened houses like a game of dominoes, dissolved mud huts and swallowed entire villages at a time. This time last week, it was only the beginning, and though the masses knew in advance that a cyclone was coming, no-one truly anticipated the enormity of what was about to happen and the absolute devastation it would bring.

The sound of a cyclone…

There are two parts to this ongoing emergency. First the cyclone came and battered the region with extreme winds and rain. It’s being said that 90% of Beira is damaged, an entire city destroyed; without roofs, communication, electricity or clean water. Food and fuel are in short supply and families are going from door to door right now, in search of food. The only access road to Beira has been washed away in three different places. Access to Beira is limited to air at this point and aid trucks are not able to reach the area. The rain continues and the level of water is still rising. Crime is rife. A friend in Mafambisse was describing how their neighbour had to fight off ‘bandito’s’ who were on his roof, trying to get the roofing. Another friend, Manwela, explained how their apartment roof in Beira was blown off during the cyclone and they spent the entire night hiding beneath their staircase with their children screaming, terrified. She said that the wind became exceptionally strong on the Thursday evening. Then between 12 and 1am, they had half an hour of calm when the wind stopped. Then at 1am, it started again but this time it was even stronger, with winds blowing at 200 km per hour. Entire doors and windows were sucked out and could be seen flying through the air. The wind was described as sounding like a pack of dogs howling and the rain poured through every crack or gap in the apartment. The wind continued like this until 5am. Manwela, the lady who has an apartment on the Beira beachfront, said that the top of their apartment building lost an entire wall and that had the wind continued like it was for even half an hour more, she’s certain the entire building would have collapsed. “We are so lucky to be alive,” she said.

Before and after Cyclone Idai. The dark areas represent the areas under water. The Buzi area was particularly hard hit with a population of around 5000 people, of which 2500 are children. No-one knows how many of them managed to escape as there is only one access road and this all happened at night. Rescue teams were unable to get to them for some time.

So many horrific stories are emerging as some communication is restored in a few areas. One of thousands of stories, is a family of 6 that perished in Mafambisse, not far from our old house. The family was annihilated as they hid under a bed for safety during the cyclone but were killed by the roof as the house collapsed. Their bodies were found 2 days later. Animals were flicked around like frisbees and their carcasses now hang from branches and buildings. The roof of the Beira hospital has gone and on the night of the cyclone, countless patients died in hospital due to the wind, rain and flying debris pummeling and pouring into the building.

The Pungwe River in flood….where Beira is cut off from the rest of the world….

The second part to this ongoing emergency is that the cyclone went inland, right up into Zimbabwe, most notably the Chimanimani mountains. An entire street in the Chipinge town is said to be gone due to flash floods and landslides, literally buried in rubble. Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for. This water is now heading to Mozambique, back to where the storm made landfall. Since last Thursday, it has rained constantly. The entire region is flooding. Rivers have burst their banks and small streams have become raging torrents, literally swallowing up entire villages. A chilling voice note is being circulated about a man who had to abandon his vehicle about 25 kilometers from Nhamatanda. On his walk, he saw villages being swept away and in just one 4 kilometer stretch, he estimated between 300 and 500 dead bodies washed up onto the road or floating in the torrent of brown water. He saw people being swept away in the rapids. He was stranded in a village for 3 days. He talks about a man on his own with a motor boat who worked tirelessly, rescuing thousands of people from tree tops and roof tops and taking them to higher ground. He speaks of the screaming he heard for 3 days as people were swept away and in some cases, taken by crocodiles.

The flooding continues now and water levels are still rising and there are still thousands of people stranded on roof tops and in trees. Manwela, a receptionist based at Tongaat Hulett in Mafambisse talks about how she has a fridge in her office stocked with antivenom for snake bites as the snakes, insects and animals are also seeking higher ground.

The Save River in flood in Zimbabwe ….water on its way to Mozambique …

Just yesterday, some Movitel Cell phone towers in a few locations were repaired. Beira is mostly without communication, all 500 000 people. We are still waiting to hear from our dear house keeper, Laurinah, who lives in Beira with her family. There are so many people trying to contact loved one’s in Beira, clueless about the conditions being experienced and whether they are actually alive. I spoke to Laurinah 2 days before the cyclone and jokingly told her to go to Zimbabwe because this storm is ‘big and it’s coming.’ We laughed. But she probably should have. I cant imagine what it must have been like to be in that storm, with that wind and without 4 strong walls. I think of Beira and what it is like in a normal rainy season and how easily it floods and how the people are so vulnerable anyway. And then I think of the rain and wind they have just had plus all this water still coming down and I stop myself from thinking anymore….

A Whatsapp message:

“Good evening community. I’ve just had a call from the team leader in Beira and he says that the situation is critical. 5 days on and there are still 100’s of people on rooftops and in trees waiting to be rescued. The immediate need is for helicopters… As many as possible. Refuelling is not a problem.. He has arranged with Beira airport for fuel. Medical /foos etc is secondary.. Right now.. People need to be rescued first. He says there are lots of snakes in the trees as well. There is a man in a remote area about 50km away from Beira stranded with 100 children.. They’ve tun out of food and 3 children have died from malaria. Please, please, please…can everyone call on any and all contacts with helicopters.. If there is a fee we will get the funding… But we need helicopters!!”

This crisis is in full swing and the stories from the people on the ground are still not known. Only people with access to satellite phones, or with a generator and have been able to charge their phones have been able to communicate. People are still being pulled out from under the rubble in Beira and regions like the Buzi flats, Lamego, Tica and Nhamatanda are under water or cut off. The water came down in a massive torrent in the middle of the night and heavy rain continued for days after the cyclone.

Some old photos of the region

Right now, the focus is still on saving people. People are still drowning, people are still trapped. There are a few rescue organisations that are with helicopters and boats and are accessing these remote villages that are under water or isolated. Horrific stories are starting to emerge such as mothers literally throwing their babies and children onto the rescue boats from the tree tops that they are so desperately clinging to. When the boats return for a second load of people, those trees that had been full up of families, were gone. Please help Mozambique. This is a critical time and life is being lost as we speak. Please support the organisations that are on the ground and able to get to these people. They need funds, they need supplies, they need blankets. This is only the beginning.

There are 3 main aid organisations who are in the thick of it and who are working tirelessly to get to these people. If you would like to help Mozambique, please support them with a contribution to one of the aid organisations listed below. The road is long for Mozambique and as I said, they are still focused on saving people, never mind assessing the situation, or what happens next in the way of dead bodies, medicine and complete loss of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people.

Sofala Province in Mozambique

Saturday, 23 March 2019….the rain is still falling and water levels continue to rise…

Update: It’s still raining in Sofala Province

3 replies »

  1. I pray that throughout the aftermath of this disaster the world will come to their knees to help. It’s about the loss the trauma the disease and recovery. So many losses and starvation. God help please.