(Blantyre) Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera on Wednesday appealed for international help to deal with the devastation of Cyclone Freddy, “a national tragedy”, which claimed at least 225 lives in the impoverished southern African country.
Traveling to Blantyre (south), economic capital and epicenter of the disaster, the Head of State attended a ceremony for the victims of the cyclone. “It’s a national tragedy,” he said wearing a raincoat and rain boots.
“I appeal to international partners and donors to provide further assistance in the face of the destruction and damage caused by Tropical Cyclone Freddy,” he continued.
Dozens of mourners attended the rally held at a school in Chilobwe township, near Blantyre. Twenty-one coffins adorned with wreaths of flowers were lined up under a tent, protected from the fine and continuous rain.
Exceptionally long-lived, Freddy had already hit southern Africa at the end of February, killing 17 people, before going back the other way in early March.
With less powerful winds but carrying torrential rains, the cyclone caused heavy flooding and deadly landslides in Malawi, a landlocked country where a state of disaster was declared. The police and the army were deployed.
Several dozen people are still missing. President Chakwera has pledged to “intensify” the search.
More than 88,300 others are homeless. Schools and churches have been turned into emergency shelters. A total of 165 centers have been opened. A dozen health facilities were impacted by the destruction.
The destruction is “enormous,” Felix Washon, spokesman for the Malawi Red Cross Society, which is carrying out relief operations, told AFP. And the collapsed bridges and the still high water level in some places make rescue operations even more difficult. Survivors were found on trees and rooftops.
Pope Francis, during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square, said he prayed “for the dead, the wounded, the displaced” in Malawi hit by a “calamity”.
In Chilobwe, vulnerable houses made of bricks and earth were devastated by impressive mudslides.
But life has already slowly resumed, markets and businesses have reopened. Minibus taxi driver Daud Chitumba, 27, told AFP that he has mouths to feed: “I have two little girls and obligations. We have to rebuild our lives.”
Barely two days ago, in this same poor neighborhood, families and rescuers were digging in the mud, sometimes with their bare hands, in the hope of finding a loved one.
“There are dead here, all around,” Fadila Njolomole, 19, is convinced. The day before, two people were swept away by a landslide, she says.
The NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF), present on the spot, fears a jump in cholera cases in the country which is already fighting against a deadly epidemic of this disease.
According to the latest forecast, Freddy should dissipate over land but the rains are likely to persist for several more days.
The cyclone also hit neighboring Mozambique on its second pass. A still partial balance sheet reports 21 dead but it could get worse. In the coastal town of Quelimane (center) about 40 km from where the cyclone landed, the rain has not stopped since the weekend.
Many houses are destroyed, roofs torn off and roads cut: “The city is almost an island”, according to Thomas Bonnet of the NGO Friends in Global Health, on the spot.
President Filipe Nyusi is due to visit the region on Wednesday.
Freddy, who made an unprecedented crossing of more than 8000 km from east to west in the Indian Ocean, has been raging for more than 35 days. It is on the way to being classified as the longest cyclone in history by meteorologists.
Tropical storms and cyclones appear several times a year in the southwest Indian Ocean, during the hurricane season from November to April.