MAPUTO - Mozambique’s death toll from flooding in the wake of Cyclone Idai more than doubled as relief workers struggled to deal with the devastation wrought by the storm.
The number of dead has increased to 202, Mozambique’s cabinet said, as it declared a national emergency. President Filipe Nyusi said the toll could exceed 1,000. In neighboring Zimbabwe, at least 98 people have died and that figure could reach 300, according to its government.
The storm caused flooding over an area of 394 square kilometers (152 square miles), according to European Union satellite imagery. Already more than 1.5 million people have been affected in the region, the United Nations said.
“The situation is likely to deteriorate, and the number of people affected is likely to increase,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement. “The immediate priority is search and rescue for people stranded and isolated by flood waters, with priority being given to trauma victims.”
The storm disrupted electricity exports from Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa hydropower dam to South Africa, and curbed fuel supplies to Zimbabwe from a pipeline that originates in Beira, which bore the brunt of the cyclone when it made landfall on March 15.
While it’s too early to estimate the cost of the devastation, the storm will be “very economically damaging,” said John Ashbourne, an Africa economist at London-based Capital Economics.
Mozambique’s worst-recorded flooding occurred in 2000, when Cyclone Leon-Eline struck, killing about 800 people. The country is the third-most vulnerable on the continent to climate change, according to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.
Before forming a tropical cyclone on March 9, the system dumped heavy rains over Mozambique and neighboring Malawi earlier this month, displacing more than 100,000 people and causing more than 60 deaths. The storm then moved back out to the southern Indian Ocean, where warm waters caused it to rapidly strengthen as it once again took aim at Mozambique’s coast.
The first incarnation of the storm last week resulted in a temporary halt to coal exports from Vale SA’s Moatize operation, Mozambique’s biggest producer, after railway lines were submerged. Operations have since resumed, the company said by email.
In Zimbabwe, Idai swept across the east of the country, destroying roads and bridges in a region that’s recently experienced drought. President Emmerson Mnangagwa said the country is drawing from “strategic reserves” to send food to affected communities.
Relief workers are struggling to provide assistance because of a lack of equipment, said Caroline Haga, spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Helicopters are being used to rescue people stranded in trees and drop water-purification tablets, though their efforts are being hampered by bad weather, she said.
“According to the forecast it’s going to be raining for the next four days,” Haga said. “It’s a massive catastrophe. It’s really a race against time.”