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On March 18, four days after Cyclone Idai raged through Mozambique, Rick Emenaker flew over the country’s worst-hit community, the central port city of Beira.
“We saw people on rooftops by the hundreds, and others clinging to trees,” said Emenaker, a disaster response manager with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). “The floodwaters had completely submerged homes.”
Satellite images released by the European Space Agency showed inland floodwaters measuring 80 miles by 15 miles, drowning homes and villages that once dotted the region.
Cyclone Idai first hit Beira late on March 14 with winds of up to 105 mph before moving on to Zimbabwe and Malawi. The storm, now blamed for at least 500 deaths, has triggered one of the worst disasters in the South African region in recent times, affecting at least 2 million people, according to the United Nations.
Private aid workers have jumped in to assist government officials with rescue efforts and needs assessments across the region. But they say the affected communities face challenges that will likely extend for months.
The U.S.-based MAF runs a field office out of Nampula, capital of Mozambique’s northeastern Nampula province, and provides humanitarian missionaries with flights to remote regions. Emenaker traveled from the United States to join the team in Mozambique once the group noticed the cyclone heading for the country.
The official death toll in Mozambique stands at 242, but President Filipe Nyusi said it could reach 1,000 as responders gain more access to closed-off areas. The storm destroyed about 90 percent of the city of Beira. The Buzi and Pungue rivers also overflowed, further exacerbating the flood situation.
MAF teamed up with local aviation partners and flew members of the government disaster agency, the INGC, across the city. They took pictures and gauged the crisis before dispatching assistance. “It really opened the eyes of the world to what’s going on,” Emenaker said of the photos. Since then, MAF has joined in on the rescue efforts, passing out food and tents from a helicopter.
In neighboring Zimbabwe, at least 259 people died from the disaster, and more than 200 others remain missing, include police officers, students, and miners. The government declared a state of emergency in Chimanimani district, the worst-hit region, and President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared two days of mourning that will begin this Saturday.
Nicholas Shamano, the country director with Christian Aid, said poor communication networks and infrastructure continue to hinder access to some of the affected areas.
Still, stories of desperation have emerged: Amid the disaster, some people remained stranded for hours with the dead, schoolchildren walked 9 miles to find help for their classmates, and pregnant women went into labor prematurely.
Shamano said the country’s Department of Civil Protection has set up a command center to coordinate the efforts of the various aid groups.
In Malawi to the north, heavy rains and floods battered the country and triggered mudslides days before the cyclone struck. The government declared a national disaster after the rains forced thousands of people into makeshift camps. Cyclone Idai then added to the crisis. The storms have killed at least 56 people and displaced more than 125,000 others in the country.
Mark Baker is the disaster response director with Water Mission, an aid group that works to create safe water systems. He said his organization had already delivered water systems to some of the camps after the initial rainfall. Currently, the primary objective for its team is to identify the rising needs.
“We’re going to bolster the systems and try to increase production, because we know they’re going to have an influx of displaced people,” he said.
As the immediate rescue and recovery efforts continue, aid responders say the longer-term issues are only beginning. The floodwaters in Mozambique have destroyed almost all crops just ahead of harvest season, Emenaker noted. Affected communities also are at serious risk of disease outbreaks, yet may have limited access to healthcare.
“Even if their immediate needs are addressed, the impacts will be far-reaching,” Shamano said. “There will still be [many] more needs.”