(Blantyre) They stir the mud in the hope of finding relatives: the search continues on Tuesday in Malawi after the deadly return to southern Africa of Cyclone Freddy, on track to be the longest ever observed by meteorologists.
More than 200 deaths have already been recorded in Malawi and Mozambique, and the tolls are expected to rise further.
Malawi, a landlocked country that is among the poorest on the planet, is paying the highest price so far, according to the Office of Disaster Management.
“The death toll rose from 99 to 190, with 584 injured and 37 missing,” the National Disaster Management Office said in a statement.
After making landfall for the second time on Saturday evening in Mozambique, killing at least 10 people, Freddy headed in the early hours of Monday towards southern neighboring Malawi. It notably hit the region of the economic capital Blantyre, in the south of the country where the state of disaster was declared.
In the township of Chilobwe, near Blantyre, stunned residents stand frozen in front of the debris of houses washed away by the mudslides. The wind has died down, but the rain continues to pour down.
“We are helpless and no one is there to help us,” said 80-year-old John Witman, drenched despite a raincoat and woolen hat. He is looking for his son-in-law, who disappeared in the collapse of his house, swept away by the sudden rising waters. Most of the houses made of earth and bricks did not resist.
Residents say they are convinced that dozens of bodies are still under the mud. But there isn’t a rescuer in sight. Elsewhere, excavators were deployed. The day before, families and rescuers searched the ground with their bare hands in the pouring rain.
“It is unfortunately what we feared: Freddy caused and still causes heavy rainfall”, explains Emmanuel Cloppet, director of Météo-France for the Indian Ocean, recalling that in the event of a cyclone, it is often the rains that cause the greatest number of victims.
Freddy first hit southern Africa at the end of February. After an unprecedented crossing of more than 10,000 km from east to west in the Indian Ocean, it had made landfall in Madagascar before hitting Mozambique. The death toll was then 17.
Recharging in intensity and humidity above the warm seas, with winds above 220 km/h, Freddy then followed an unprecedented loop trajectory, returning to strike down on southern Africa two weeks later.
“It’s very rare for these cyclones to feed again and again,” said Coleen Vogel, a climate expert at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “People don’t expect them to come back once they’ve already struck,” she adds, blaming climate change.
Freddy’s return had already claimed 10 lives in Madagascar last week. He then returned to hit Mozambique on Saturday night. According to local NGOs, the town of Quelimane (center), about 40 km from where the cyclone landed, is still largely cut off from the world.
For the moment, the Mozambican authorities have counted 10 deaths, but the information is difficult to trace. Electricity, water and communications are still cut off in many places.
Freddy trained off Australia. It reached storm stage in early February and has been raging in the Indian Ocean for 36 days now. Tropical Cyclone John lasted 31 days in 1994.
The southwest Indian Ocean is crossed by tropical storms and cyclones several times a year during the hurricane season which extends from November to April.