‘Floods swept my baby from my arms – then they took my husband and son’
When the terrible power of Cyclone Freddy brought massive flooding and landslides to this small town in the middle of the night, the residents had moments to flee and many did not make it.
Rose Yohane remembers hearing heavy winds and a strange noise from the hillside when the record-breaking storm last week tore into Naotcha, outside Blantyre in southern Malawi, after midnight.
“We thought it was an earthquake,” she told the Telegraph. “We all woke up and my husband told us to run away.”
Her husband Charles picked up their son Yohane and daughter Faith, while she followed with their one-year-old baby, Prince.
Yet they had hardly left their home when they were confronted with a torrent of water.
“As we were coming out of the house we found ourselves trapped by heavy flooding which eventually grabbed my baby from my arms.
“I could see him going, but I couldn't do anything to rescue him,” she said.
She too was soon being carried away.
“As my courageous husband was rescuing me, the heavy floods swept him together with my other child away.”
Only she and Faith survived. Faith, 12 is in hospital with a fractured leg.
Floods, mudslides and disease
More than 520 people are confirmed dead across south east Africa and tens of thousands homeless after the storm ravaged Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar.
Scientists believe the cyclone has broken records for the longest-lasting such storm, after it swept over the Indian Ocean and then careened across some of the world's poorest countries. Freddy began brewing off the coast of Australia in early February and lasted at least 36 days.
During that time it also broke the southern hemisphere record for accumulated cyclone energy, a measure of the storm's strength over time. At times wind speeds topped 160mph (260 km/h).
The storm first struck southern Africa in late February, hitting Madagascar and Mozambique.
It then moved back out over the Indian Ocean, where it drew more power from the warm waters before making a rare course reversal to slam into the mainland a second time.
Six months of rainfall was dumped in as little as six days, triggering floods and mudslides that devastated homes, roads and bridges.
Climate change means such devastation is predicted to come more frequently. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), forecasts heavier rain and flooding as well as stronger cyclones in south east Africa and Madagascar.
Outside Blantyre, soldiers and rescuers dug bodies out from under mounds of debris and collapsed buildings.
The Telegraph watched as one woman's body was uncovered from a collapsed house. She was later found to have been pregnant.
Four or five feet away, another body was found belonging to a girl of 10 or 12, setting off the sound of uncontrollable mourning from onlookers.
Within two hours some 15 bodies were found and uncovered.
Another survivor, a 16-year-old boy called Blessings, said he had lost four family members with just him and two siblings remaining.
“I can't really believe it's reality, all I see are dreams, he said. “The only thing I remember is that we started the day very well with my parents and fellow children until night when I went to sleep at my neighbour's house, since I was not sleeping home.
“Around 12 midnight, I head heavy noise coming from the hill side, when I went out with my colleagues to find out, there were floods all over and I couldn't even see where our house was.
“I thought of going to see what had happened to my fellow children and parents but I couldn't manage.
“I then, joined my friends running to a safer place, only to see my parents and siblings in the morning buried in heavy mud,” he said.
Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, the main health centre in Blantyre, was overwhelmed with 200 wounded and 80 dead on the first day of the storm.
Almost 10,700 cholera cases have been registered in Malawi, with around 2,300 infections in the last week alone, according to data provider Airfinity
Marion Pechayre, MSF director in Malawi, said there were now fears cholera would flare again, just as the country's worst outbreak on record had appeared to be receding. Cases had erupted after storm Anna hit in January 2022.
She said: “We are really scared about a resurgence and the number of cases going up again because of the floods and destruction of infrastructure.”
The floods had devastated the same poor neighbourhoods that had been stalked by cholera, she said.
Mozambique and Malawi are among the poorest countries in the world, according to United Nations data, and more than half live below the poverty line.
Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Malawians in the country's four cities live in informal houses, UN Habitat data from 2020 shows.
Experts say the toll from Freddy highlighted the importance of storm early warning systems.
Simple storm warnings in the days before Freddy struck were credited with saving many lives in Mozambique.
However, in neighbouring Malawi, the warnings were said to have been inconsistent and often unheeded by residents.
The UN estimates that Freddy in total affected 500,000 people and left more than 183,100 displaced from their homes.
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