March 27, 2019 / 12:05 PM / a month ago

'The water kept rising': How Mozambicans were caught in path of deadly cyclone

BUZI/GUARA GUARA, Mozambique (Reuters) - For two days before Cyclone Idai hit, a government official drove down the bumpy roads of Buzi in central Mozambique, warning people through a megaphone that a big storm was coming.

FILE PHOTO: People stand on the banks where the bridge was washed away, in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, near the village of John Segredo, Mozambique March 24, 2019. Picture taken March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo

He told them to find a place to shelter, but many people in the once bustling estuary town did not know where to go.

Among them were 21-year-old Gaspar Armando and his extended family of 15. When the cyclone ripped though Buzi on March 14, they stayed in their four homes made of sticks and mud until the storm tore off the sheet-metal roofs and the walls collapsed.

Around midnight, with the rain horizontal, the family ran to a small concrete slaughterhouse nearby. They have lived there ever since, climbing onto the blue steel roof when the floods came.

“The government knew it was going to be bad but they didn’t find us a safe place. They didn’t organize it,” Armando said.

Such scenes played out in many other towns and villages, survivors said. Government and humanitarian officials said they did not anticipate the extent of flooding in one of the most severe storms to hit Africa’s east coast in more than a decade.

An early warning system implemented by the government did not reach everyone and in the poorest, most remote areas there are few solid structures where people can shelter, aid workers and residents said.

The death toll had reached 468 in Mozambique by Tuesday and hundreds of thousands of others were in need of food, water and shelter, according to the United Nations.

GRAPHIC - Cyclone Idai’s destructive path: tmsnrt.rs/2HxKqdk

NO PLACE TO GO

Many people are angry that the government did not do more to protect them. Reuters’ interviews with 18 people in four communities spread across 100 kilometers (62 miles) showed the warning systems proved insufficient.

Four of those interviewed said they had received no warning about the impending storm. The others said they were warned but were offered no help moving to a safer place.

Makeshift camps were set up on higher ground only after the flooding, they said, so many people decided to see out the storm in their homes.

“We thought it would just be a little rain,” said Louisa Ndega, 60, sheltering at a camp in the village of Guara Guara.

Mozambique’s land and environment minister, Celso Correia, who is leading the government’s response to the disaster, told Reuters it was not clear until the final days before the storm where it would hit.

The area under threat was too vast and, with about 7 million inhabitants, too heavily populated to be evacuated, he said.

Mozambique was also hit by deadly floods and cyclones in 2000 and 2007, and since then has beefed up its response team and implemented an early-warning system.

The system was triggered weeks before Cyclone Idai, with red flags raised to alert people to the dangers, Correia said.

He said people had been told to seek higher ground when they saw the flags flying, but that no one could have predicted the force and speed of the flooding when two big rivers burst their banks following the cyclone.

The area around the coastal town of Beira, where the cyclone made landfall, started flooding within 36 hours of the storm and was soon unrecognizable, with brown water covering the land.

“These floods were extreme,” Correia said. “It was almost instantaneous.”

Philippe Caroff, a forecaster at the regional cyclone center on the French island of La Reunion, said his agency’s forecasts were showing a “high level of threat” for the region almost three days before the cyclone made landfall, including storm surges of nearly four meters (13 ft) around Beira.

“It was not difficult to imagine that flooding would become a problem, because the area is very flat,” he said.

There had also been a significant amount of rain in the preceding months, the wet season in Mozambique, he said.

The country’s national weather service receives updates from the center, and cyclone bulletins are available on its website, Caroff said.

EARLY WARNINGS

He said he had sent an email to the chief forecaster at the Mozambique weather service when the risk of a worst-case scenario became apparent. In it, he said, he expressed hope that all preparations had been made for Beira’s coastal frontline.

Mozambique’s weather service could not immediately be reached by phone and did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is overseeing the international relief effort, declined comment on the government’s preparations.

From Mozambique, Cyclone Idai tore inland into Zimbabwe and Malawi, flattening buildings and causing deadly mudslides.

At least 179 people were killed in Zimbabwe, where the Department of Civil Protection had sent text messages and issued radio and television warnings advising people to move away from areas in the cyclone’s path two days before it hit.

But in Zimbabwe’s worst affected district, Chimanimani, many said they had no place to go because the government had not provided shelter, and there was no mandatory evacuation order.

In Malawi, the death toll stood at 60.

Scientists believe climate change will make cyclones like Idai more frequent, making it vital that systems are in place to protect the most vulnerable, according to humanitarian agencies.

“There are definitely lessons to be learned,” said Pierluigi Testa, an emergency coordinator for the international aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Testa said a network of purpose-built, reinforced-concrete storm shelters similar to ones used in Bangladesh could have offered protection against the cyclone.

Correia said there was no time to set up such facilities in Mozambique. About 300,000 people had moved to higher ground though even some of these places ended up under water, he said.

“I FELT LIKE WE WERE GOING TO DIE”

No one interviewed by Reuters moved in anticipation of the storm. Some sought refuge in sturdy buildings such as schools.

At a hospital south of Beira, Catarina Meque, 21, said the water was already rising when she received the flood warning.

Medical staff started shouting to people to climb onto beds but hospital workers fled as the water got higher, and Meque said she followed with her malnourished six-month-old baby.

“I felt like we were going to die if we waited there,” she said in Guara Guara, which she reached after walking for 17 hours through waist-high water.

About 100 km northwest of Beira, in the devastated village of John Segredo, villagers said they received no warning at all.

Many people remain fearful. In Buzi, a mother holding a young child asked: “The water — it’s not coming back, is it?”

Stephen Eisenhammer reported from Buzi and Emma Rumney from Guara Guara; Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare and Alexander Winning and Joe Bavier in Johannesburg; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Timothy Heritage

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