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Cyclone Idai: “The scale of devastation is enormous”

A catastrophe is unfolding in southeast Africa.

A man searches for missing family members with his dog on March 18, 2019, in eastern Zimbabwe, after the area was hit by Cyclone Idai.
Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The president of Mozambique fears that more than 1,000 people in his country may be dead several days after the southeastern African country was hit by the powerful tropical Cyclone Idai.

Though the official death toll is 84, President Filipe Nyusi said Tuesday “it appears that we can register more than 1,000 deaths.” On local radio, he said “many bodies” had been seen floating in flooded rivers.

We don’t yet have a full picture of the toll of Cyclone Idai, which smashed into the port city of Beira on the Indian Ocean on Friday. But early reports from relief workers on the ground are grim.

“The situation is terrible,” Jamie LeSueur of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Tuesday in a press statement. “The scale of devastation is enormous. It seems that 90 per cent of the area [in Beira] is completely destroyed.” The IFRC described the scale of the devastation as “massive and horrifying.”

Many of the affected areas have been cut off from communications. The charity Save the Children reports that 100,000 people still need to be rescued near Beira. People are waiting on rooftops to be rescued. There are reports that flying sheet metal roofs decapitated people during the storm, which made landfall with winds in excess of 100 mph, perhaps as high as 124 mph.

The fierce winds mean that the cyclone measured a Category 2 or 3, a major storm capable of flooding communities and tearing roofs off houses. (A cyclone is the same weather phenomenon as a hurricane and a typhoon.)

Although the storm hit Mozambique last week, it lingered over the country through the weekend, impacting neighboring Zimbabwe and Malawi as well with deadly flooding rain. And remnants of the storm are still pouring down rain in some areas, adding to the flood risk.

Residents search for bodies on March 19, 2019, in Ngangu township of Chimanimani, Zimbabwe.
Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

In all, 1.7 million people lived were in the direct path of the cyclone, the United Nations reports.

Save the Children explains the dire situation here:

Aerial assessments in Sofala province, in the centre of the country, show that an area more than 50km wide has been completely submerged. They also show that Buzi town, which is estimated to be home to more than 2,500 children, could be under water within 24 hours

Aerial video of Beira shows near-complete devastation.

The Associated Press reports that there have been a total of 250 deaths across Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe associated with the storm, but those numbers will likely rise. Thousands of homes have also been destroyed.

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“Almost 850,000 people — around half of whom are estimated to be children — have been affected by severe flooding in Malawi and Mozambique,” UNICEF reported Tuesday.

You can help by donating to Save the Children, the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders.

Men carry a coffin along a makeshift path on the river in eastern Zimbabwe.
Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images