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Surviving the flood

In Southeast Africa, a massive cyclone strike is testing the resilience of local communities and the ability of aid groups to avert a long-term crisis

Surviving the flood

YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images (People who lost their home in Cyclone Idai sleep on a street in Buzi, Mozambique.)

At 2 a.m. on a Friday—hours after Cyclone Idai struck—Robert Koehn and his wife, Karis, bailed water by the bucketful from their home in Lamego, 51 miles inland from the central port city of Beira in Mozambique. 

The American missionary couple with the Africa Inland Mission lived in the village for more than 18 years. They witnessed past storms and had shuttered their windows in advance. 

“We really had no idea how strong it was going to be.” 

In the coming days, the Koehns’ home became a focal point for assistance in the village. Robert helped transport a pregnant woman to a hospital and—as floodwaters stubbornly refused to subside—housed some 300 villagers in every available space in his home. 

He also helped to create a makeshift crossing over a flooded area that allowed possibly hundreds of stranded people to pass for about 48 hours. “I don’t know that I pulled one single person out of the water,” he said. “I just made a path so that they could get out.” 

The community’s experience echoes other narratives of the struggle for survival and courageous assistance that emerged from one of the worst weather-related disasters to hit the region in recent history. 

The storm that hit land on the night of March 14 first struck Beira. It destroyed 90 percent of the city, home to about 500,000 people. Packing 105 mph winds, the cyclone persisted for days, overflowing rivers and submerging entire villages and cities. 

By March 20, 836 square miles of Mozambique were covered in water as the storm created vast inland oceans. It continued on to eastern Zimbabwe and to the southern part of Malawi.

ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images

Residents stand on rooftops in a flooded area of Buzi, central Mozambique, on March 20. (ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 800 people were confirmed dead across the three Southeast African countries as of early April. Due to the scale of the damage, the final exact death toll may never be known. 

For those who have survived, the next phase of the crisis is only beginning. Officials are still learning the extent of damage to infrastructure and agricultural produce. Health officials confirmed more than 3,100 cases of cholera in the weeks following the storm, a potentially catastrophic outbreak. 

The calamity brought back memories from 19 years earlier, when widespread flooding struck Mozambique, followed by the powerful Cyclone Eline. Some 350 people died in that disaster.

Mozambique has made progress in its social institutions since then. Responders are hopeful the improvements, coupled with inflowing aid across the region, will help in the long-term recovery process.

Themba Hadebe/AP

A woman carrying a baby on her back jumps to avoid stepping in dirty water in Beira, Mozambique. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

AFTER CYCLONE IDAI MADE LANDFALL, U.S.-based Food for the Hungry lost contact with its country team in Mozambique. Shep Owen, senior director of relief and humanitarian affairs, deliberated with the regional director and left Washington for Beira. 

Extensive damage on ground greeted him: Strong winds had knocked down a welcome sign at the airport. Overhead, divers from neighboring South Africa jumped out of helicopters to rescue people drifting in the water. Away from the noise of the rotors, an unnerving silence blanketed the city.  

Members of Food for the Hungry’s local team lost relatives in the storm, and about half of their homes were destroyed. In the rural communities where the group works, mud homes and grass roofs did not withstand the gusting winds and rain, Owen said. “It just melted under the intense weather.”

The group’s first response included providing chlorination to aid water treatment, distributing tarpaulins for temporary shelter, and providing other hygiene items. It also partnered with a Chinese crew that brought dozens of boats to deliver food from the World Food Program to people stranded in flooded areas. 

Owen said the region will likely battle long-term with the food shortage. “This hit during the second growing season, so for all those farmers who were expecting crops, it’s all gone.” The Famine Early Warning Systems Network warned the region would face “acute food insecurity” starting in August and possibly lasting until early 2020.

Beira quickly became the command center for aid efforts. Various groups responding to the disaster set up workspaces at the airport, one of the only places that retained some electricity immediately after the disaster.

Government officials in the city housed more than 140,000 people in makeshift camps set up in empty schools and church buildings. Mosquito nets and smalls sacks of clothing and valuables marked off each occupant’s personal space.

YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

People from Buzi take shelter in the Samora M. Machel secondary school, used as an evacuation center in Beira. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

The crowded centers and regions still without assistance raised concerns over infectious waterborne diseases like cholera. Officials by April 7 had confirmed more than 3,100 cases of the disease in and around Beira. At least six people had already died from the disease.

Cholera, a bacterial infection, spreads via contaminated food and water and causes severe diarrhea and vomiting. Without treatment, victims often die within hours. The disease is endemic in Mozambique: It infected about 2,000 people in a previous outbreak that ended just a year ago. 

The World Health Organization dispatched 900,000 oral doses of cholera vaccine to the affected regions within the first week of April.

YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

A treatment tent at an urban health center in Beira. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Owen said his group will partner with U.S. Medical Teams International to repair damaged health centers in some of the affected communities and will bring in medical teams that will operate for about three months. 

DUE TO DAMAGED ROADS and the distance from Beira, aid did not reach Robert Koehn’s village of Lamego until almost two weeks after the disaster. Locals had to rely on each other to survive. 

Two days after the storm struck, more people arrived at the Koehns’ home, some with updates and others in need of aid. One man explained his pregnant daughter-in-law was already in labor and needed help. Koehn took her to a hospital in a nearby town, using the only road that wasn’t flooded. 

That had changed by the time he made it home a few hours later. People who came asking for help explained the south side of the road had flooded. 

“This was a village that was now 5, 6 feet deep in water, with a current that defied swimming.”

Looking out over the water, he saw several students from a nearby teacher training school latching on to acacia trees. Fathers held their babies around their heads while clinging to the trees for their lives. 

Another boy, no more than 9 years old, Koehn said, sat on top of drifting bamboo and grass that once served as his family’s rooftop. He had floated from another village about 3 miles away before grasping a tree in Lamego. 

Koehn grabbed a 325-foot rope and strung it through about 20 yellow plastic containers that once held 20 liters of cooking oil. Clinging to fallen telephone poles, he then worked with other people to extend the makeshift lifeline across the moving floodwater.

The stranded locals used the floating rope to pull themselves closer to land. “Some people had some bamboo poles that would pull people out of the current if they got all the way across,” he explained. 

PHILIMON BULAWAYO/REUTERS/Newscom

A man crosses the flooded Umvumvu River in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe. (PHILIMON BULAWAYO/REUTERS/Newscom)

When darkness fell, another person with a car turned on the headlights to help people still crossing to see their way. The lifeline stayed up for the next 48 hours.

At least 38 people from Lamego died, and the storm destroyed many homes. About 300 people came to the Koehns’ home seeking shelter. Reached by phone, Robert described the scene: Some 80 mothers and children slept in his garage. At least 25 younger men climbed onto the cement roof over his office. Others slept in his car. 

The Koehns sheltered people like Victory Dolidje, who waded through waters as high as her waist with her four children to get to safety. They had spent a rainy night on top of a roof before receiving dry clothes and food at the Koehns’ home. 

“All the food we had in our house and in our fields rotted,” she said. “Our clothes, our pots and pans, all got taken away in the flood.”

Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

People are rescued by boat after being stranded in Buzi. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

Lamego has already turned its attention to rebuilding. Once the waters started to recede, people walked about picking up scattered zinc roofing sheets to reconstruct shelters. At least 12 families collected some of the eucalyptus poles the storm pulled down in the Koehns’ yard.

Robert said he sees resilience across his community, where people say, “Lamego is different now, but let’s go forward.”

IN THE PREVIOUS DISASTER that struck Mozambique in February 2000, Cyclone Eline displaced about 650,000 people. The ordeal drew global attention after news outlets filmed an air force medic assisting one woman as she gave birth on a tree, where she sought refuge.

Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations at Samaritan’s Purse, said it took three to five years for a new normal to return to the country.

His group assisted in rebuilding roads and cities and distributed agricultural produce, mostly through a food-for-work program. This time around, Samaritan’s Purse also set up an emergency field hospital with a special obstetrics section in the town of Buzi.

Isaacs sees similarities in the scale of the current disaster. Mozambique still suffers from poverty and corruption. This time, the country has developed a stronger capacity to respond, he explained.

“The first goal is to get the people stabilized so their lives are not at risk,” he said. “We need to see what [Mozambican authorities] are asking for and how they want to effect these rebuilding efforts in the country.”

In Zimbabwe’s worst-hit Chimanimani district, the cyclone destroyed about 95 percent of road networks, said Nicholas Shamano, the country director with Christian Aid. As rescuers cleared paths to access blocked-off areas, rainfall muddied some of the new routes.

The storm displaced at least 16,000 households, and more than 250,000 people needed some form of assistance.

Themba Hadebe/AP

Workers and Mozambican army officers push a trolley filled with food aid to be loaded into a helicopter at the airport in Beira. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Zimbabwe’s minister of local government, July Moyo, said dealing with the aftermath of the cyclone could cost the government $18 million. 

Idai had a similar impact in Malawi, where it wiped out about 12 percent of the expected output from the 2018/2019 farming season. At least 60 people died in the country and 860,000 others needed assistance. 

At the Njeleza camp in Chikwawa district, people built temporary shelters with sticks and leaves, the squalid homes scattered around an empty plot. One nearby mud house stood partly collapsed with the zinc roof caved in. 

The conditions and the reports of cholera outbreak in Mozambique created an urgent scenario for South Carolina–based Water Mission, a nonprofit that provides safe water systems in communities. The country team strengthened the productivity of its systems in 10 locations, the majority of them camps for internally displaced persons. 

Mark Baker, the group’s disaster response director, said Water Mission plans to set up additional water systems in five new locations. The group partnered with Doctors Without Borders to analyze the quality of 40 existing water sources, including village pumps. As more roads open up, Baker said the group will also send assistance to Mozambique from its offices in Malawi and Tanzania.

The installed water systems will serve the communities until the government shuts down the camps. In cases where the camps become long-term residences, Baker said the systems will transition into community-based projects. “We provide them with all the follow-up they need for that.”

The extent of the disaster highlights the need for disaster management programs, said Charles Franzén, the director of humanitarian and disaster response with World Relief. He called for adaptive, community-based programs that can respond to such threats with localized solutions. 

“Things like this happen more frequently than they did before, so people need to be more prepared.”

—This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments as of April 9 and to clarify the number of people who used the makeshift rope crossing.


A list of Christian aid groups responding to Cyclone Idai

ACT Alliance
Africa Inland Mission
Christian Aid
Food for the Hungry
Mission Aviation Fellowship
Samaritan’s Purse
Water Mission
World Relief
World Vision

Onize Ohikere

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.