Cyclone Idai: UN pleads for help as death toll crosses 700

Agencies say food and sanitation are priorities, with thousands still trapped by flood waters

The United Nations has appealed for more assistance for Mozambique as aid agencies struggle to assist tens of thousands of people battered by one of the most powerful cyclones to hit southern Africa.

The death toll from Cyclone Idai in Mozambique has risen to 417, a government minister said, with another 259 confirmed deaths in Zimbabwe, according to the UN migration agency IOM. There were no updates on the number of deaths in Malawi, which was last reported at 56.

Around 1.7 million people have been affected and hundreds are still missing.

Survivors are struggling in desperate conditions a week after the storm lashed Mozambique with winds of nearly 200 kilometres per hour. Some still trapped on roof tops and those saved are in need of food and face the risk of outbreaks of disease such as cholera.

The World Food Programme declared the flood crisis a level three emergency on Friday night, putting it on a par with crises in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan.

"The designation will accelerate the massive operational scale-up now under way to assist victims of last week's Category 4 cyclone and subsequent large-scale flooding that claimed countless lives and displaced at least 600,000 people," said WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel.

"Now that the world is beginning to grasp the scale of devastation and despair in the wake of Cyclone Idai, we as an international community are at a crucial moment to act," he said.

Humanitarian agencies are racing against the clock to help people, many of whom have not had a meal in days. Poor sanitary conditions mean disease is now a real concern.

Graves of people killed during Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe's Chimanimani district. EPA
Graves of people killed during Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe's Chimanimani district. EPA

Mozambique's port city of Beira has become a centre for rescue efforts in the region despite being 90 per cent destroyed by the cyclone.

"Already, some cholera cases have been reported in Beira along with an increasing number of malaria infections among people trapped by the flooding," the International Federation of the Red Cross said.

"We are running out of time, it is at a critical point here," the head of the UN children's agency chief Henrietta Fore told AFP after she flew into Beira from New York.

Hygiene and safe drinking water are absolute priorities, the Unicef chief said.

"There's stagnant water, it's not draining, decomposing bodies, lack of good hygiene and sanitation," ms Fore said. "We are worried about cholera, about malaria because of the stagnant water."

Aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said people were also at risk of respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

Relief agencies said the force of the cyclone and scale of the flooding it unleashed was shocking.

Districts west of Beira resemble an inland lake, and thousands of people are still trapped on rooftops and in trees where they sought to escape the flood waters.

The town of Buzi across the estuary south-west of Beira "has reportedly disappeared, with the water as high as the palm trees", the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

"This is a catastrophe," Prime Minister Carlos Antonio do Rosario told reporters in Beira. The government says there are still around 15,000 people needing to be saved.

Tens of thousands of people are already in shelters in central Mozambique.

In Beira, businessman Ibraimo Masquine counted his blessings. "I cant believe I'm here. I was scared for my life, my family," he told AFP as he cleared debris from his factory.

"I tell you straight, these coming days are very difficult. I wait for epidemic, some epidemic. People are going to die," he said.


There was "no clean water to drink, no food", he added.

In Beira's Samora Machel Secondary School, where President Filipe Nyusi was educated, more than 1,000 people have found shelter, with many sleeping on the floor of an indoor basketball court.

"Everything is difficult here. I'm fighting for my children to have something to eat," said Celeste Dambo.

On Wednesday, crowds of people looted a warehouse, taking away sacks of rice marked "China Aid".

The main morgue in Beira is crowded with bodies and burials are impossible because the city cemeteries are flooded, the ICRC said.

The agency said there were dozens of bodies that "need to be removed and cared for in a dignified way".

The ICRC has set up a dedicated website where missing people can be registered.

Updated: March 23, 2019 03:12 PM


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