Cyclone Idai Devastates Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi as Death Toll Continues to Rise

Tropical Cyclone Idai approaches Beira shortly after reaching peak intensity. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Tropical Cyclone Idai approaches Beira shortly after reaching peak intensity. (Wikimedia Commons)

Over 750 people have died in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi after Cyclone Idai hit the port city of Beira, Mozambique on March 14. Some 1.7 million others have been left without food, water, and electricity. Aid agency officials reported that the storm damaged or destroyed 90 percent of Beira, toppling trees and sweeping away homes, while President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique believes the cyclone could leave a death toll of over 1,000 people.   

Cyclone Idai followed a week of storms in the region that killed over 100 people and destroyed thousands of homes. The cyclone carried heavy rain and winds up to 110 mph, making it a high-end Category 2 storm, with peak wind speeds of 121 mph less than 24 hours before hitting Beira. The height of the storm surge, the wall of water the cyclone pushed onto land, peaked at 20 feet in some parts.

While Mozambique has seen stronger storms in the past, Cyclone Idai was unprecedented in terms of the extent of death and damage it caused. Beira’s geography, sitting at the mouth of the River Pungwe with parts of the city lying below sea level, makes the area particularly vulnerable to tropical storms. The UN has called Cyclone Idai potentially “one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the southern hemisphere.”

The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery ranks Mozambique as the third most at-risk African country for extreme weather-related events. The flooding created “inland oceans” in Mozambique, covering more than 800 square miles of land in total, with one that was over 30 miles wide and 20 feet deep.

Many attribute the severity of the conditions before and after Cyclone Idai to climate change. Sustained drought in Mozambique in recent years prevented the dry earth from absorbing large amounts of water while warmer air temperatures contributed to Cyclone Idai’s ability to hold and dump nearly a year’s worth of rain onto Mozambique over the span of a few days, leading to extensive flooding. Furthermore, rising sea levels may have intensified the storm surge caused by the cyclone.

According to some climate experts, the frequency of tropical cyclones has actually decreased over the last 70 years. However, the frequency of high-intensity storms has increased. Coincidentally, Cyclone Idai hit Beira on the same day that the One Planet Summit started in Nairobi, where leaders from around the world gathered to discuss efforts to address climate change.

While thousands affected by the storm have been rescued, search and rescue operations continue for some 15 thousand more people missing or awaiting rescue. “The agony of not knowing what happened to your loved one in a disaster like Cyclone Idai is indescribable," said Diane Araujo, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beira.

Despite the fact that tens of millions of dollars have been raised across the world to support humanitarian aid for those affected by the storm, Elhadj As Sy, Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said that relief efforts “are nowhere near the scale and magnitude of the problem.” In areas where collapsed infrastructure has made it difficult for aid workers to reach, the military has been distributing small packets of food.

International organizations such as the Red Cross initially focused their efforts on Beira where the cyclone made landfall. However, they did not anticipate the floods that hit nearby countryside areas in the ensuing days. Helicopters and boats were slow to arrive in the countryside as people waited in trees, on roofs, and in electric pylons to be rescued, their flooded fields and crops below.

Concerns are also rising over cholera, spread by sewage-contaminated water, and malaria, spread by disease-carrying mosquitoes that use standing water as breeding grounds. These diseases can kill within hours if left untreated. Environment Minister Celso Correia of Mozambique fears that these health problems are “unavoidable.”

In the midst of the devastation, Sy of the IFRC reminds, “We can't forget that it is an intimate and human crisis. Tens of thousands of families have lost everything. Children have lost parents. Communities have lost schools and clinics.”

President Filipe Nyusi stated that the government is “doing all [it] can to ensure that the situation returns to normal in all spheres.”