Cyclone Idai: 'Children died as they fell from trees, adults drowned when they could hold on no longer'

Adrian Blomfield
People carry a coffin near Beira, Mozambique - AFP

There were hundreds of corpses washed up on the side of the road; others bobbed past his stranded car, 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 on Mozambique by Cyclone Idai remains unknown. But the testimony by Mr Taylor, a stranded motorist who survived, hints at 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 Talyor, a former Zimbabwean farmer living in Mozambique, abandoned his car on Monday and walked 15 miles 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 members of their families.

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 speculated the government's early estimate of 1,000 dead would prove to be 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, while Britain has flown in tents and rescue kits as well as pledging £12m for the humanitarian mission being mounted to feed and house hundreds of thousands left homeless by the storm.

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

But by the time a rescue mission could be coordinated — 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 on it 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.

People return to Praia Nova Village neighborhood following Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique Credit:  Josh Estey/ Reuters

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 came flooding through their 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 greatest danger: succumbing to it meant being tipped into the currents below, the peril only accentuated by the fact that few could swim, said aid workers.

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 1,200 square mile stretch of water the size of Gloucestershire created overnight.

Rescue workers did what they could. Antonio Bemba, an official helping to coordinate search missions along five rivers, including the Buzi, said they had managed to pull 634 people out of trees. But often the rescuers had come too late.

“Many children have died as they fell from trees or other high places and adults fell because they were asleep and could not hold on any longer,” he said. “Others fell because of hunger as they had been cut off for three days.”

Up to 95% of homes in Beira, Mozambique have been destroyed Credit:  Josh Estey/ CARE

Cyclones in the Indian Ocean are supposed to be less devastating than the hurricanes that strike in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Yet Idai could become the most deadly weather-related event anywhere on Earth in recent times.

The devastation in Mozambique aside, hundreds are feared dead in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe and in Malawi. 

The region is prone to cyclones — some 700 died in Mozambique when Cyclone Eline struck in 2000 — but the region remains largely unprepared to cope with super storms that scientists warn are growing ever more powerful because of global warming.

In storm-prone areas of the United States, very high death counts are normally averted because of mass evacuations conducted before hurricanes make landfall. 

But little of the sort happened in the three affected African states, despite meteorologists warning of the destruction Idai could unleash for more than a week before it struck land. 

Although text messages were sent out to urge people to move to safety many were never received after heavy rainfall  knocked out power lines, meaning many could not charge their phones.

A child returning to his devastated village Credit: Josh Estey/CARE

Zimbabwe’s local government minister, July Moyo, acknowledged that far more could have been done in advance after touring the country’s devastated Chimanimani region.

“If we had closed schools, we could have saved lives,” he said on Thursday.

Like in Mozambique, Zimbabweans were left to cope with little outside help. “People are buried under the mud and villagers are excavating their loved ones using shovels and things like that,” Mr Moyo said.

Lives could also have been saved had houses been rebuilt more sturdily and on safer ground after Cyclone Eline, said aid workers.

Yet the death toll cannot be blame on poor planning alone. 

Scientists say the scale of the disaster can be partly attributed to global warming, which has caused sea levels to rise and contributed to an increase in the surface temperature of the Indian Ocean.

The additional heat means that cyclones gain additional energy as they move across the surface of the water, making them potentially far more devastating than they once were.

That may explain why Beira, Mozambique’s fourth city, home to more than 500,000 people, suffered such extensive ruin.

More than 90 percent of buildings were damaged or destroyed when the cyclone struck the city, aid workers say. High winds tore metal roofs off shacks in the city’s slums, causing them to fly through the streets and decapitate people caught in their path.

The force of the cyclone also caused the roof of the city’s main hospital to collapse, killing five newborn babies in the neonatal ward. With power cut off, another 160 patients hooked up to life-saving machines subsequently died, health workers said.

So powerful were the winds that cats and other small animals were flung into the air, their rotting carcasses now hanging from trees and on rooftops.

For survivors in the city, the situation is increasingly desperate. Police in the city, which remains largely without power and communications, reportedly opened fire yesterday as protests broke out and looters tried to salvage food from damaged warehouses.

The United Nations said it had unloaded 22 tonnes of food supplies, with 40 more on their way — but even that is likely to prove insufficient to feed so large a population.

Feeding stations have been erected in ruined school buildings, but many in the queues have been turned away because there simply is not enough food.

“We are in a race against time to provide relief to those in need,” said Saviano Abreu, a UN spokesman in Beira. “The UN, the government, NGOs, the whole humanitarian system is working to save lives and provide assistance to the people affected.

“The response is complex and [a] challenge. Communications are still not working properly, roads are impassable.”

Yesterday looting  broke out in Beira Credit:  YASUYOSHI CHIBA/ AFP

With rising anger, fuelled by suspicion that the government had been slow to help a region that is largely opposition-supporting, hundreds of people have been gathering to protest on Beira’s shattered streets. 

There has also been criticism that the government of Filipe Nyusi, the president, has been slow to deploy the army to assist in the rescue mission because many soldiers remain deployed in the north of the country to fight a growing Islamist insurgency.

Laid waste by civil war in the Seventies and Eighties, Mozambique has struggled to emerge from years of instability. Corruption and rising debt have hampered progress, yet the country was, until this week, undoubtedly better off than it had been.

Those faltering gains could count for little, given the scale of destruction left by Idai. Infrastructure lies in ruins and this year’s crops have been washed away in large parts of the country, creating a very real threat to the country's already fragile food security.

With floodwaters unlikely to recede for weeks, the disaster in Mozambique, especially for its hundreds of thousands of newly homeless, is likely to leave a legacy that could take decades to erase.

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