Rescue workers in Mozambique were on Tuesday racing to pluck people out of trees and off rooftops after a monster storm which officials fear claimed more than 1,000 lives before smashing into Zimbabwe.
Four days after Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall, torrential rains, powerful winds and flash flooding swept away roads and bridges, inflicting further pain on the two impoverished nations.
More than a thousand people are feared to have died in Mozambique alone while scores have been killed and more than 200 are missing in neighbouring Zimbabwe following the deadliest cyclone to hit southern Africa.
Emergency teams in central Mozambique set off in boats to chart an inland sea of floodwater, rescuing survivors from roofs and treetops in an operation which stretched long into the night.
Air force personnel from Mozambique and South Africa were drafted in to fly rescue missions, while an NGO called Rescue South Africa said it had picked up 34 people since Friday night, using three helicopters.
“It is the only way to access the people that are stranded,” Rescue SA’s Abrie Senekal told AFP, saying the NGO was trying to source more helicopters.
Ian Scher, who heads Rescue SA, said the rescue teams were having to make difficult decisions.
“Sometimes we can only save two out of five, sometimes we drop food and go to someone else who’s in bigger danger,” he said.
“There’s two issues at the same time: people stranded in trees, and people stranded on houses or new islands that have no food,” he explained.
Those stuck up trees were having to deal with snakes, insects and other wildlife sheltering there, he said.
“We just save what we can save and the others will perish.”
In Nhamatanda, some 60 kilometres (40 miles) northwest of Beira, 27-year-old Jose Batio and his wife and children survived by climbing onto a roof.
But a lot of their neighbours “were swept by the water,” he said.
“Water came like a tsunami and destroyed most things. We were prisoners on the roof,” he told AFP after they were rescued by boat.
On Monday, President Filipe Nyusi said the Pungwe and Buzi rivers in central Mozambique had “burst their banks and engulfed entire villages.”
“Communities are isolated and bodies are floating” on the waters, he said.
“This is a real humanitarian disaster,” he said.
“More than 100,000 people are in danger”.
The UN World Food Programme said it was mobilising aid for some 600,000 people, saying the world did not yet appreciate the scale of the “massive disaster.”
So far, it has dispatched more than five tonnes of emergency provisions to the affected areas.
“WFP aims to support 500,000 to 600,000 people in the coming weeks,” spokesman Herve Verhoosel told reporters in Geneva.
“I don’t think that the world (has) realised yet the scale of the problem,” he said.
Mozambique’s government believes that some 600,000 people have been impacted by the storm but WFP’s analysis of satellite imagery has suggested that up to 1.7 million people in the country were in Idai’s “path.”
The storm also lashed eastern Zimbabwe, leaving 98 people dead and at least 217 others missing, officials said.
Worst hit was Chimanimani in Manicaland, an eastern province which borders Mozambique.
Families started burying their dead in damp graves on Monday, as injured survivors filled up the hospitals, an AFP correspondent said.
Military helicopters were airlifting people to Mutare, the largest city near Chimanimani.
The storm swept away homes and bridges, devastating huge areas in what Defence Minister Perrance Shiri said “resembles the aftermath of a full-scale war”.
Some roads were swallowed by massive sinkholes, while bridges were ripped to pieces by flash floods.
“There’s going to be a large amount of dead people,” Rescue SA’s Scher said.
“The locals and the international community don’t even realise it yet but it will be huge.”
Care International has said the cyclone is “is possibly the deadliest cyclone” to hit southern Africa to date.