65% Damaged - A Storm that Redefined a Country
The wind and rain had gone on for days. And the winds kept rising. By Thursday the 14th of March, winds had reached the speed of 195 kilometres per hour. The eye of the storm turned inland and over the coastal city of Beira. A city home to half a million people.
Thursday, the 14th of March was a culmination of a storm that had started weeks ago. The winds and rain had initially made landfall about 300 kilometres northeast of Beira in the provinces of Niassa, Tete and Zambezia.
Early March, wind speeds were recorded as high as 65 kilometres per hour. This was enough to destroy homes, hospitals and crops, killing just under 70 people in the process. The storm was called Tropical Depression 11.
Tropical Depression 11 then turned back to the Indian Ocean and made its way towards Madagascar. Instead of dissolving and dying out, it returned. Now with wind speeds three times that of the ones previously recorded. This time the storm was called a cyclone and was given the name Idai. In Shona language, the name means to love.
The city of Beira, home to more than 500,000 people and located in Central Mozambique was on the path of the cyclone. Idai blew over Beira and then moved inland all the way to Zimbabwe with its impact stretching up to Malawi.
Idai became a synonym for destruction. Roofs were blown off, trees uprooted and power grids toppled. The rain and winds created an inland ocean on the coastal plains of Beira. Almost half of the land left under the water were irrigated croplands. As Beira recovers, it is well known that even once floodwaters subside, the next harvest will be gone. In a country where chronic food insecurity sits at 24 percent and 42 percent of children are stunted, the aftermath of the cyclone is a disaster in itself.
First aerial estimates set the scale of damage in Beira as high as 90 percent. As aid actors and the media struggled to gather information on the situation on the ground, people caught in the path of the storm sought shelter in trees and rooftops.
Information on what was needed, how much and where, was extremely difficult to obtain. A week into the disaster REACH, with the support of DG ECHO, deployed an assessment team to support in deriving information on the scale of damage and ensuing needs. As a deployment team landed in Beira, Geographic Information Systems or GIS teams at headquarters sped up with damage assessments based on remote sensing.
Like in many disasters, the first phase of the response was about search and rescue − getting people to safety and preventing further damage and loss of life. The immediately following priority was the delivery of life-saving assistance.
As soon as maps were out, they were being put to use to target aid and assist people out of the reach of services and support due to the collapse of infrastructure and flooding. Although the maps produced by satellite images did not show people, they showed the location of houses, villages and public spaces affected by the disaster and to be prioritised in the delivery of aid.
Satellite images were thus vital tools in filling information gaps in the early stages of response activities. However, whilst these images were crucial tools for supporting recovery efforts, they did not cover the entire story of the disaster in themselves.
“The damage caused by Cyclone Idai can be divided into three impacts,” James McArthur, REACH GIS Manager elaborates. McArthur was among the REACH deployment team and first to reach Mozambique.
“There is the damage caused by cyclonic winds along the direct storm track, flooding along coastal areas due to the storm surge, and the extensive rainfall inland that caused flash flooding, river banks to overflow, and even the collapse of infrastructure such as dams that further exacerbated conditions across the region," McArthur elaborates.
The city of Beira bore the brunt of the wind’s effect as it was hit on the Cyclone’s path when winds were at their strongest. The rural and coastal areas were then in turn impacted by the rains and floods. Rural households were hit especially hard, as was highlighted by the findings of an assessment conducted shortly after the cyclone’s passing. More than 90 percent of respondents living in rural areas noted having lost some crops due to the cyclone. In urban areas, 72 percent of habitats voiced the same concern.
The loss of livelihoods and the ensuing challenges have by now been identified as factors defining the long-term impacts of the cyclone. The loss of food crops was naturally felt from the start, but among the short term impacts was the effects of standing water - water that refused to subside even after the storm had passed.
"As dangerous as the cyclone was, the time it takes for floodwaters to subside in a climate like Beira is a major threat on its own. Standing water coupled with damaged homes and communal water points have the potential to trigger thousands of more victims due to waterborne diseases like malaria and cholera," McArthur explains. Within the first two weeks of the disaster, more than 500 cases of cholera were reported in Beira.
"Shared water points are also often used by families who cannot afford their own water taps," McArthur adds. Risks are thus graver for those already seeing high levels of vulnerability.
Again, satellite images told one story. They filled pressing information gaps but were mute when it came to recording the actual humanitarian conditions on the ground.
Within a week of being on the ground, REACH set out to fill remaining information gaps with enumerators trained shortly after the disaster. The team set out to collect information in Beira and the city’s outskirts and later branched out to hard-to-reach areas in the province. In total, the enumerators interviewed 488 people in 188 locations.
Just like all aspects of the humanitarian responses, information produced and gathered was the outcome of collaboration. The needs assessments carried out after the cyclone were designed, implemented and edited into various information products by a team consisting of ACAPS, IFRC, MapAction, OCHA, REACH and UNDAC, not to mention the actors supporting in data gathering.
Less than a month after Cyclone Idai swept over Beria, a cyclone called Kenneth hit the northern shores of Mozambique. Kenneth made its way deep inland sweeping houses, roads and electricity grids on its way.
“There’s never been two storms this strong hit in the same year, let alone within five weeks of each other in Mozambique,” Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist with experience from work in East Africa was reported saying in The Guardian.
The area has always been known for storms, strong winds and torrential rains. Yet the impact is something new.