Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

‘It’s a ghost place’: Cyclone Idai devastates Beira, Mozambique’s fourth-largest city

As the floodwaters recede, dazed residents of this battered Mozambican city scramble for shelter, food and water

Fallen trees and downed power lines sit on the side of the road in Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
Fallen trees and downed power lines sit on the side of the road in Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

On the cramped Ethiopian Airlines flight into the Mozambican coastal city of Beira, the view from the window turns from a patchwork of waterways, green pastures and plains to a sea the colour of brown clay.

Approaching the country’s fourth-largest city, the channels of the River Buzi look like black tentacles against the earthy pall of the floods. Rows of treetops are above the water level.

Floodwater stretches for 130 kilometres across Mozambique. In some places it is up to 25km wide.

Beneath it are villages, thousands of homes, uncounted hectares of farmland and drowned livestock. More than 750 people are confirmed dead across the former Portuguese colony and neighbouring Malawi and Zimbabwe.

An aerial survey offers only a broad sense of the tragedy unfolding since Cyclone Idai blew through the city and the surrounding province of Sofala, with winds of nearly 200kph.

Across the landscape, nearly every roof is gaping or askew. Small houses lie completely destroyed. Warehouses have been crumpled by the winds. Palm trees lean blasted to one side, a testament to the force of the gale.

A sign on the airport roof welcoming arrivals to Beira becomes visible, its lettering scattered.

In the arrivals hall, converted into a headquarters for the rescue operation, the urgency of the situation and the international response becomes clear.

The disaster has brought together a diverse cross-section of people under one battered roof. Rescue divers, just back from a mission, toss their cigarette butts before stowing their inflatable rescue boat.

With more torrential rain forecast, humanitarian workers huddle to identify priorities, while Indian and South African soldiers await orders.

Arrivals walk in front of Beira International Airport’s damaged terminal in Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
Arrivals walk in front of Beira International Airport’s damaged terminal in Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

Mozambican ministers, including environment chief Celso Correia, and top members of the country’s military and disaster relief agency are present. The airport’s only cash machine has a queue two dozen long.

Several locals hawk wood carvings in the hope of capitalising on this emergency scrum, while others wait for work in their tuk-tuks.

A spirit of collaboration born of necessity has emerged at Beira’s meeting point for suppliers and rescuers, where the magnitude of the disaster has produced a strong sense of camaraderie.

As the death toll continues to rise, 110,000 people remain stranded in organised and makeshift emergency centres. About 1.7 million people will require aid, agencies say. Cases of cholera and malaria have been reported.

“Every day we discover that the destruction left by Cyclone Idai is worse than we imagined,” says Hicham Mandoudi, of the Red Cross.

A World Health Organisation worker, taking a break from the aid mission, described the cyclone’s impact in historic terms.

“The only thing I can compare this to is the tsunami in Banda Aceh in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti,” he says, referring to the 2004 and 2010 disasters that killed about 330,000 people.

This primary school outside of the city centre in Beira was completely damaged Cyclone Idai. Jack Moore / The National
This primary school outside of the city centre in Beira was completely damaged Cyclone Idai. Jack Moore / The National

Driving around the city, the sheer force of nature that passed through Beira becomes apparent. It is now a shell of what it once was – a popular beach destination of half a million people with vibrant nightlife.

Trees have crushed fences, broken powerlines lie on wet roads and forlorn children stand outside empty homes.

Outside a destroyed football stadium in the Palmeiras Dois district, a local shouts against his misfortune. The clubhouse of Sporting Clube da Beira also lies in tatters.

Helena Mesquita, 25, a restaurateur who lives in nearby Chimoio, has returned to the city with her cousins to help. She has gone for days without hearing from her family because of power cuts.

“Everything is down. Everything is awful,” Ms Mesquita says, pointing to a friend’s destroyed house and then one of her favourite restaurants, now ruined. “It was amazing but now there is nothing.”

A statue of Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, stands untouched – symbolic of the strength of a people who do not wallow in hard times.

Workers are already nailing sheet-metal roofing back on to buildings. Tractors are used to clear debris from the streets.

The elderly chop at downed tree trunks. Men scavenge fallen power lines to sell for scrap and women carry home sheets of corrugated iron on their heads.

A street seller stands alone on the side of a destroyed road, hoping some passing customer will buy his juice.

Barefoot children play football outside of a damaged stadium for the local area in Beira. Jack Moore / The National
Barefoot children play football outside of a damaged stadium for the local area in Beira. Jack Moore / The National

Barefoot children kick a football around in a muddy alley, seemingly unaware of the severity of the tragedy around them.

Other enterprising youngsters gather the largest of the fallen branches for home repairs and firewood.

“That’s the high for me, the spirit. It seems like everybody is together,” says Marco, 29, a logistics manager.

“Funnily enough, I think people are positive but that’s because they were fearing for their lives.”

The will of Beira to get back on its feet will surely make the city’s revival quicker, but the task is formidable, particularly for those who live outside the city centre.

“We’re actually fine here in the city compared with the outskirts of Beira,” Ms Mesquita says, despite being surrounded by devastation.

“There’s a lot of flooding, a lot of hunger with the children. With the parents, a lot of kids were misplaced, no homes, no nothing.”

Moving from downtown to Beira’s rural outskirts, the disparity is striking. Infrastructure is not as strong, jobs pay less and home construction is poorer.

This is where hunger, disease and lack of access to aid will be felt most acutely.

Wooden shacks with thatched roofs were no match for Idai. Even breeze-block homes were wrecked by the Category 2 storm.

The price of staple items has risen – in some cases threefold – leaving poorer locals struggling to buy the goods they need.

It may take years to restore Beira to its former status as a colourful regional capital infused with a layer of colonial history.

Meanwhile, there are pressing humanitarian needs to be addressed. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that among those affected are 74,600 pregnant women.

More than half of those are expected to give birth before September and many live in rural areas.

More than 3,100 classrooms were damaged in Sofala Province, leaving about 90,000 children without access to education. The October 12 primary school was completely destroyed by the cyclone.

While floodwaters have started to recede, above-average rainfall forecast for the coming week means more flooding is a real risk.

Thousands are eager to leave the emergency centres but many are likely to discover that home as they knew it no longer exists.

“It’s very scary, just to think this used to be my home town,” Ms Mesquita says. “Now, it’s just like a ghost place.”

Updated: May 11, 2019 10:17 AM

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