The cyclone which ripped through Mozambique before hitting neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi has been described as “one of the worst weather-related disasters” in the southern hemisphere.
Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi said the death toll could reach as high as 1,000, while the World Food Programme estimated at least 1.7m people were in the path of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique.
At least 238 people have been killed and 400,000 were left homeless.
In Zimbabwe, at least 98 people have died and a further 56 have been confirmed dead in Malawi, with scores missing in both countries.
A spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organisation, Claire Nullis, said: “What we are seeing emerging from our informal networks and from the official databases is if the worst fears are realised… it is one of the worst weather-related disasters in the southern hemisphere.”
Rapidly rising floodwaters have created an “inland ocean” in Mozambique, after Cyclone Idai dropped huge amounts of rain in Zimbabwe’s eastern mountains.
Huge expanses of the country are flooded and continuing rain is causing waters to rise, putting thousands of families in danger and forcing many to flee to rooftops and treetops.
“This is a major humanitarian emergency that is getting bigger by the hour,” said Herve Verhoosel of the World Food Programme, the UN food agency.
He said that large numbers of people are “crammed on rooftops and elevated patches of land” and aid workers are scrambling to rescue as many as possible and providing air drops of food, water and blankets.
“People visible from the air may be the lucky ones, and the top priority now is to rescue as many as possible and ferry them to safety,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Red Cross, Caroline Haga, said the situation was “dire” and added satellite images were being used to help rescue teams target the worst affected areas.
The full extent of the damage is not yet known as many areas are impassible, with key roads and bridges washed away.
The hardest hit region is Mozambique’s Beira port, where thousands of homes have been destroyed, communication lines are down and there is currently no power.
Beira’s main hospital has been badly damaged and the charity Doctors Without Borders said its work in the city and other local health centres had “ceased completely”.
The city could also face a “serious fuel shortage” and its power grid is not expected to start working until the end of the month.
The flooding is also affecting Malawi and Zimbabwe, where the mountain town of Chimanimani has been badly hit and several roads leading into the town have been cut off.
“We did over 38 burials this morning,” said Absolom Makanga, a Salvation Army worker.
“It is difficult. We have to walk long distances because the roads are cut off but also because sometimes the graves are then washed away.”
A survivor, Tecla Chagwiza, said she had fled naked after her family’s home was destroyed and three of her neighbours were killed.
Rivers in Malawi have burst their banks, submerging houses and leaving around 11,000 families displaced in the southern district of Nsanje.
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