Mozambique reported scores more deaths on Saturday from a cyclone and floods around southern Africa that have killed at least 761 people and left thousands in desperate need of help, many on rooftops and trees.
Cyclone Idai lashed the Mozambican port city of Beira with winds of up to 170km per hour last week, then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi, swamping populations and devastating homes.
Mozambique's Land and Environment Minister Celso Correia told journalists that the death toll had risen to 446 from 417, adding that 531,000 people had been affected by the disaster and 110,000 were in camps.
“The situation is getting better, still critical, but it’s getting better,” he told reporters at the airport in Beira that has become a centre for aid operations.
The storm has also killed 259 in Zimbabwe, while in Malawi 56 people died in heavy rains ahead of the cyclone.
In all three countries, survivors have been digging through rubble to search for victims, and scrambling for shelter, food and water, while governments and aid agencies rush in help.
“All our food got wet, we didn’t know where to go with the children. We don’t have anything,” said Mimi Manuel, a 26-year-old mother of four who lost her home and was sitting on the floor of a makeshift shelter in a primary school in Beira.
At the refuge, families cooked with wood from trees ripped up by the storm, as toddlers played around battered school desks. Manuel wore a necklace with the word “Hope".
“When it all started, people started screaming,” another survivor Dina Fiegado, 18, said, describing how sheet rooves blew off and rough walls collapsed in the sea-edge community of Praia Nova, where residents said about 50 people died.
“Some people tried to escape, some people tried to stay at home.”
The Mozambican minister said some 1,500 people were in need of immediate rescue from rooftops and trees. Helicopters and boats have been carrying people to safety.
The United Nations’ humanitarian office warned that more flooding may come as heavy rains inland poured into the low-lying Beira area and nearby dams filled up threatening to burst the Buzi and Pungwe rivers again.
“We’re going to have to wait until the flood waters recede until we know the full expanse of the toll on the people of Mozambique,” said UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) coordinator Sebastian Rhodes Stampa.
Some cholera cases have been reported.
Left with nothing, many survivors were fretting for their future, while others mourned losses.
At Beira’s central morgue, Mika Masseera, 56, grieved for his severely weakened mother, Sumbo Mufucho, 73, who died in hospital following a rescue after she had clung to a tree for two days surrounded by floodwaters.
With the flooding easing in parts of cyclone-stricken Mozambique on Friday, fears were rising that the waters could yield up many more bodies.
Eight days after Cyclone Idai struck, the homeless, hungry and injured slowly made their way from devastated inland areas to the port city of Beira, which was heavily damaged itself but has emerged as the nerve centre for rescue efforts.
“Some were wounded. Some were bleeding,” said Julia Castigo, a Beira resident who watched them arrive. “Some had feet white like flour for being in the water for so long.”
Aid workers are seeing many children who have been separated from their parents in the chaos or orphaned.
Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the relief efforts so far “are nowhere near the scale and magnitude of the problem,” and the humanitarian needs are likely to grow in the coming weeks and months.
“We should brace ourselves,” he said.
Helicopters set off into the rain for another day of efforts to find people clinging to rooftops and trees.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for stepped up support for victims of Idai saying the UN and its humanitarian partners are scaling up the response but “far greater international support is needed".
The UN chief said in a statement that “with crops destroyed in the breadbasket of Mozambique more people are at risk of food insecurity in all three countries.” With water and sanitation systems largely destroyed, waterborne diseases are also a growing concern.
“The situation is simply horrendous. There is no other way to describe it,” As Sy said after touring camps for the growing number of displaced. “Three thousand people who are living in a school that has 15 classrooms and six, only six, toilets. You can imagine how much we are sitting on a water and sanitation ticking bomb.”
Deaths could soar beyond the 1,000 predicted by Mozambique’s president earlier this week, As Sy said.
Thousands made the trek from inland Mozambique toward Beira, some walking along roads carved away by the raging waters. Hundreds of others arrived by boat, ferried by fishermen who plucked stranded people from patches of land that had been turned into islands.
In Beira, people salvaged the metal strips of roofs that had been peeled away like the skin of a fruit. Downed trees littered the streets.
In Zimbabwe, where roads began to open, a fuller picture of the extent of the damage began to emerge.
The victims included a mother buried in the same grave with her child; headmasters missing together with dozens of students; illegal gold and diamond miners swept away by raging rivers; and police officers washed away with their prisoners.
In Mutare, Maina Chisiriirwa said she buried her son-in-law, who had gone to the diamond fields to mine illegally. “There are no jobs and all he wanted was to feed his family,” she said.
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