'The world hasn't caught on to how severe this disaster is': Aid workers race to rescue thousands from Mozambique flood that could prove deadliest in southern Africa

Adrian Blomfield
Around 90% of homes in Mozambique's second city, Beria, have been either destroyed or damaged according to rescuers - REUTERS

Families clung to tree and roof tops in Mozambique on Tuesday, trapped by rapidly rising floodwaters left in the wake of what could prove the deadliest cyclone ever to hit southern Africa.

With entire villages wholly submerged and one of the country’s principal cities all but wrecked, aid workers said they were in a race against time to rescue thousands from an expanding “inland ocean” created by Cyclone Idai.

Filipe Nyusi, Mozambique's president, made an emotional appeal for emergency assistance from the international community, saying he had witnessed “bodies floating” in the floodwaters when he had flown over the worst affected areas.

“It’s a real humanitarian disaster of large proportions,” he said, adding that he had seen several villages wiped out after two rivers had burst their banks. 

A man searches for missing family members with his dog in the Zimbabwean province of Manicaland Credit: AFP

Although the official death toll in Mozambique stands at 84, Mr Nyusi said the death toll could surpass 1,000. More than 100 people are also feared dead in Zimbabwe and Malawi after the cyclone struck both countries.

The United Nations and western aid agencies attempted to coordinate a rescue operation from the airport in Beira, a city of half-a-million where 90 percent of houses had either been destroyed or damaged, according to rescuers.

But there is even greater concern for rural communities whose fate remains largely unknown. Some 1.7m people in Mozambique lived in the cyclone’s path and aid workers said helicopters were urgently needed to rescue people before it was too late.

“There’s a sense from people on the ground that the world still really hasn’t caught on to how severe this disaster is,” said Matthew Cochrane of the International Federation of the Red Cross. “The full horror, the full impact is only going to emerge over coming days.”

Although the fury of the cyclone, which made landfall last Thursday night, has largely dissipated, rivers continue to burst their banks.

The flooding of the River Buzi in the past 24 hours has left a 30-mile stretch of land under water and government officials warned that the town of Buzi, where some 20,000 people live in mostly single-storey dwellings, was likely to be entirely submerged.

Cyclone Idai left a trail of destruction through Beria  Credit: Denis Onyodi

Charities expressed fears for thousands of children living in the Buzi district.

“In many places, no roofs or treetops are even visible above the floods,” said Machiel Pouw of Save the Children. “In other areas, people are climbing to rooftops desperately waiting to be rescued.

“Right now, it is a race against the clock to save children’s lives. This is especially true in Buzi, where we may have less than 24 hours to get people out.”

The cyclone and flooding are the worst to strike Mozambique since at least 2000, when 700 people were killed and 400,000 made homeless by Cyclone Eline, dealing a devastating blow to the country as it attempted to emerge from years of civil war.

This week’s disaster could prove even worse, with experts saying it is likely to be the most devastating in recorded history. Even if the waters recede, it will take affected areas years to recover, with hundreds of thousands having been left homeless and harvests in some of Africa’s poorest regions wiped out.

There were also concerns about an epidemic of waterborne diseases, while the charity Médecins Sans Frontières said it was worried about a general health emergency because many medical facilities were under water.

“Medical activities in Beira hospital, in local health centres and throughout the community have ceased completely,” the group said in a statement.