Cyclone Idai Brings Death and Devastation to Southern Africa

‘Almost everything is destroyed,’ said an aid worker in the city of Beira, Mozambique


Cyclone Idai, which pummeled southern Africa last week, has caused mass devastation in several countries, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Flooding is rampant, buildings have been submerged and communication lines have been cut. According to Norimitsu Onishi and Jeffrey Moyo of the New York Times, “dozens” have been killed, and many more are feared dead.

The situation is particularly dire in Beira, the low-lying port city in Mozambique where Idai landed as a high-end Category 2 storm last Thursday. Aid workers have reported that around 90 percent of the city is in ruins. “Almost everything is destroyed,” says Jamie LeSueur, leader of an International Federation of Red Cross assessment team into Beira. “Communication lines have been completely cut and roads have been destroyed.”

Witnesses reported that victims had been decapitated by metal debris flung up by strong winds. Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi said he saw dead bodies floating in the water after two rivers broke their banks, “wiping out entire villages” and cutting others off from aid, according to CNN’s Jenni Marsh, Bukola Adebayo and Vasco Cotovio. Nyusi also said that 84 people had been confirmed dead, but the death toll could reach more than 1,000.

“If the worst fears are realised ... then we can say that it is one of the worst ... tropical-cyclone-related disasters in the southern hemisphere,” United Nations World Meteorological Organization spokesperson said, per the Guardian’s Ruth Maclean.

After slamming into Beira, Idai moved inland to Malawi and Zimbabwe, which have also been hard hit by the cyclone. Zimbabwe's Ministry of Information said on Twitter that 98 people have been confirmed dead, 102 have been injured and 217 are missing. Roads leading into Chimanimani, a small district that was hit by the cyclone on Friday, have been cut off, leaving the approximately 30,000 people who live there isolated from aid. “[T]he only access into the area is by helicopter,” says Doctors Without Borders. “Airlifts were intended to take place to a nearby stabilization center, but efforts are being hampered by difficult conditions.”

In both Mozambique and Malawi, the cyclone was preceded by deadly flash floods. Since Idai hit and compounded the devastation, 56 people have been reported dead in Malawi, 577 have been reported injured and three are missing. Flooding from broken river banks has lead to the displacement of 11,000 households in the district of Nsanje, according to Doctors Without Borders. The organization says it has launched an “emergency intervention” in the area of Makhanga, which is now only accessible by boat or helicopter.

Circumstances are likely to get worse before they get better. “Following the flooding which is coming with the rains, you have of course the risk of drowning and victims there, but you have also crush and trauma injuries through the flooding,” World Health Organization spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said last week. “This is typically followed later by waterborne diseases and rise of airborne disease like malaria could also be expected.” Lindmeier also cautioned that damage to health facilities could prevent patients in need of acute care—like pregnant women or diabetes patients—from receiving the assistance they need.

Relief efforts by governments of the affected countries and agencies like the Red Cross, the United Nations World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders are already underway. But Amnesty International says more action is needed—particularly in view of the changing climate, which may increase the likelihood of cyclones and extreme flooding in southern Africa.

“The devastation wrought by Cyclone Idai is yet another wake-up call for the world to put in place ambitious climate change mitigation measures,” says Muleya Mwananyanda, the organization’s deputy regional director for southern Africa. “Regional leaders and governments of wealthier countries must support effective early-warning systems, disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation strategies to save lives and protect human rights.”

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