Disease stalks cyclone disaster zone as the world scrambles to fly more help in

André Catueira
Anastácia José, center, a lone parent of six from Beira, came within a whisker of losing her children when the cyclone hit - LUSA

As flood waters started to recede in Mozambique yesterday, fears were growing about the spread of disease and the distribution of food and clean water.

The UN and the International Red Cross said humanitarian efforts were struggling to keep pace with the scale of the disaster and warned many more deaths were likely in the days and weeks ahead.

The official death toll rose to 550 on Friday, with 259 deaths reported in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe, 242 in Mozambique and 56 more in Malawi.

But the number of dead in Mozambique is likely to surge as so much of the center of the country is still under water.

"We are running out of time, it is at a critical point here," said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore after touring the devastated port city of Beira.

"The next stage is getting clean safe drinking water because disease is what will be next... We are worried about cholera [and] about malaria because of the stagnant water."

Survivors listen to a volunteer from Mozambique Red Cross, after arriving at an evacuation centre  Credit:  REUTERS

Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said humanitarian efforts were faltering.

"They are nowhere near the scale and magnitude of the problem. And I fear we will be seeing more [deaths] in the weeks and months ahead, and we should brace ourselves."

Thousands from the countryside have been making their way toward Beira, which although largely destroyed has become a centre for rescue efforts and aid.

Helicopters clattered overhead in search of people still clinging to rooftops. Hundreds of others were on Friday still being plucked from small islands and ferried to safety by local fishermen.

Etelvina Faz Bem, a primary school teacher from a rural Catholic mission, closed her eyes before grabbing onto a 10 meter high rope which spans part of a damaged bridge over the swollen River Munhinga in Sussundenga, central Mozambique.

Behind her, dozens of others waited in line to do the same, carrying suitcases, bags, chickens and other items.

With the rope tense, Ms Bem braved the crossing. "I had to take a chance," she said. "There is no water or bread and also a lot of malaria [at the mission].”  

“It is better to risk crossing this bridge than dying without help in the interior,'' agreed Feliciano Abreu, a local man who followed her.

 In and around Beira conditions were grim.  

"The situation is simply horrendous, there is no other way to describe it," said As Sy who had been visiting a school being used for shelter.

"Three thousand people who are living in a school that has 15 classrooms and six, only six, toilets... we are sitting on a water and sanitation ticking bomb."

What moved him the most was the number of children without their parents, separated in the chaos or newly orphaned, he added.

Anastácia José, a lone parent of six from Beira, came within a whisker of losing her children when the cyclone hit.  

She received no advance warning of the storm and was huddled in a small house with the children when one of its supporting adobe walls started to crumble.

“I put the baby in my lap, grabbed the toddler’s hand and told the older ones to leave the house,” she said. “I screamed ‘run away, run away’ and they ran as fast as they could." The house collapsed just a few moments later.

The family wandered for hours in the storm, trying to get to high ground, miraculously avoiding the flying debris which killed and injured many.

A young girl stares into the distance as people from the town of Buzi unload at Beira Port after being rescued yesterday Credit:  Andrew Renneisen/ Getty

Ms Jose said she tried to get the children into trees as the waters rose but they were “already full.” In the end they made it to a high point above the water.

The family is now in Chimoio, a makeshift camp, over 100 kilometres from Beira. It is basic but there is food and fresh water. The younger children are quiet and start to cry if asked about the storm.

“We were lucky because no one got hurt… thank goodness,” says a neighbor.

Additional reporting: Luís Fonseca, Márcio Resende, Lusa news agency

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