'Bodies are floating': Rescuers struggle to reach Cyclone Idai survivors

Author
Tatenda Chitagu, Paul Schemm and Siobhán O'Grady for the Washington Post,
Section
World,
Publish Date
Thursday, 21 March 2019, 8:48AM
An aerial view of the destruction of homes after Tropical Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique. Photo / AP
An aerial view of the destruction of homes after Tropical Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique. Photo / AP

When the mudslide struck, students at the St. Charles Lwanga School had nowhere to go. So they waited for days with their classmates' corpses, hoping for rescue.

The survivors huddled together in dining halls and classrooms at their boarding school in eastern Zimbabwe, waiting out the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and neighbouring countries - waiting for help as they mourned two students and a security guard who were crushed to death.

Two days passed before a group of students finally braved the treacherous conditions and walked for miles, taking turns carrying the dead in makeshift coffins until they reached safety.

At least 200 people have been declared dead in Mozambique and another 98 in neighbouring Zimbabwe since Cyclone Idai came ashore near the central Mozambican port city of Beira on Friday, destroying infrastructure across the city of half-a-million.

Locals look at a damaged bridge after Cyclone Idai hit, in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe. Photo / AP
Locals look at a damaged bridge after Cyclone Idai hit, in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe. Photo / AP

The storm brought severe rain and winds exceeding 160kph, and now, road and weather conditions have slowed the response to the crisis.

Many did not evacuate before the storm came ashore, and now houses are destroyed, bridges have collapsed, and survivors had to scramble to their roofs and hope to be rescued.

"If we had closed schools, we would have saved lives," Zimbabwean local government minister July Moyo told reporters in the capital of Harare on Tuesday.

Nyevero Sinyabuwe survived the storm's arrival in Zimbabwe, but two of her children were killed when a boulder rolled on top of their the hut where they were sleeping in Ngangu township. She called for help, "but it was too late," she said.

A family dig for their son who got buried in the mud when Cyclone Idai struck in Chimanimani. Photo / AP
A family dig for their son who got buried in the mud when Cyclone Idai struck in Chimanimani. Photo / AP

Hundreds of people are still missing and the death count is expected to rise in all the countries affected, as rescue workers gain access to remote areas cut off by rain, flooding and damaged roads.

"We understand there are bodies which are floating," Moyo said. "Some are floating all the way into Mozambique.

Sinyabuwe said that as people fled the most affected regions in Zimbabwe, near the border of Mozambique, they were forced to leave behind the bodies of the dead. Many now may be buried in mass graves, she said.

Three days of mourning began in Mozambique on Wednesday for those killed by the devastating cyclone.

Soldiers carry injured survivors from a helicopter in Chimanimani. Photo / AP
Soldiers carry injured survivors from a helicopter in Chimanimani. Photo / AP

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi said late Tuesday that more than 200 people have been declared dead, but the toll is expected to rise as rescue workers reach isolated areas and discover more bodies.

Rescue teams are fanning out in boats and helicopters into the city and surrounding towns to rescue those clinging to rooftops and palm trees above the rising floodwaters.

"Many people are in a desperate situation, fighting for their lives at the moment, sitting on rooftops in trees and other elevated areas - this includes families and obviously many children," UNICEF spokesman Christophe Bouleriac said in a video released Wednesday.

Beira's airport is one of the few areas still above water and has become a staging ground for aid that has been coming in from around the world.

An aerial view of the destruction of homes after Tropical Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique. Photo / AP
An aerial view of the destruction of homes after Tropical Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique. Photo / AP

The United Nations' World Food Program, which rushed four tons of high-energy biscuits to Beira on Monday, has been distributing emergency food supplies and water to people in the area. Starting Wednesday, it began reaching areas inland from Beira.

"WFP is starting food distributions in Dondo today outside Beira," said Deborah Nguyen, part of the WFP response in the port city. "Communities stranded by floods in Buzi and surroundings are being rescued by helicopters to Beira for now," she added. She referred to the area across the river from the port where thousands of people are believed to be stranded and which the United Nations has warned risks being submerged.

She said there has been no letup in the steady rain that has turned large parts of the country into an inland sea.

The government has estimated that about 400,000 people have already been displaced, but the WFP said that about 1.7 million people were in the cyclone's path and that "the extent of the human suffering is not known." Given the vast size of the affected region, "we do expect that the death toll to increase significantly," the agency said.

Aerial photos of the affected regions show total devastation, with survivors restricted to the few "islands" of high ground while their homes are submerged around them.

Damage is seen after Tropical Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique. Photo / AP
Damage is seen after Tropical Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique. Photo / AP

The European Union said it was releasing $3.9 million in emergency aid, while Britain has pledged $7.9 million.

The United Arab Emirates announced it was sending $5 million in emergency aid consisting of food supplies, food supplements for children, medicine and shelter supplies for 600,000 people across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. It said it would also send Red Crescent delegations to assess the situation on the ground "so that further assistance plans" can be implemented.

Three Indian navy ships also diverted to Beira, arriving Tuesday and distributing food, medicine and clothing, as well as water. The Indian navy said it was also assisting with evacuating those stranded by the floodwaters.

Beira, Mozambique's second-biggest port, is not only a major gateway to the center of the country but also for the landlocked neighboring nations of Zimbabwe and Malawi.

The cyclone was particularly devastating to the already impoverished region with poor infrastructure because its meandering path meant it made landfall twice - first as a tropical depression and then, 11 days later, as a Category 2 cyclone.

The storm has also been blamed for 10 deaths in South Africa and Madagascar, as well as 120 in Malawi.

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