Mozambicans have learned through experience not to take news of cyclones lightly. The destruction caused by the two consecutive floods in 2000 and 2001 following devastating torrential rains and tropical storms, is still fresh in their memory.
So when the authorities put out a warning on 27 February that a cyclone was heading towards the southern lowlands and possibly sweeping though all the major river basins, it was taken seriously by the population living in the provinces of Sofala, Inhambane, Gaza, Manica and Maputo.
The Mozambique Red Cross (CVM) automatically went into an emergency mode. A task force was immediately convened at its Maputo headquarters, and a few hundred staff and volunteers at the provincial branches in question have been on 24-hours alert ever since.
The national Red Cross is coordinating with governmental disaster management institutions as well as with the International Federation's regional delegation in Harare, which is also on 24-hour standby, monitoring the movements of cyclone Japhet every six hours.
The cyclone was looming off the Mozambican coast for three days, causing heavy rainfall and strong winds in the southern provinces of the country. Its unpredictable nature was of grave concern, as it changed course a couple of times before following the same track as the devastating Cyclone Eline of 2000, which killed more than 700 people, displaced 544,000 more and caused billions of dollars of damage.
Cyclone Japhet finally made a landfall late on Sunday night, heading towards Zimbabwe. Although only causing minimal damage as it swept through Mozambique, the threat of floods still remains as the excessive rains continue. Japhet has localized for the time being over Zimbabwe causing heavy torrential rains there, as well as in Mozambique and South Africa.
According to initial information from CVM provincial branches, Inhambane seems to have been the hardest hit. Scores of people were injured by flying debris and trees, and one child was electrocuted. Electricity and telecommunications have been cut off in large parts of the towns of Inhambane and Vilanculos, roads have been blocked and damaged by uprooted palm trees, and some schools and health clinics have been partially destroyed.
Approximately 100 Red Cross volunteers are on duty throughout the province, working side by side with local authorities, providing whatever assistance the population requires. Local members of the Red Cross Regional Disaster Response Team (RDRT) are helping the provincial branch to assess the extent of damage, and determine if further Red Cross intervention in needed.
The Red Cross branch in Manica province reports recurrent power cuts due to bad weather. Some areas have also been cut from water supplies and telecommunications, further hampering assessment of the situation. Despite six days of heavy rains and strong winds, the situation in Sofala province is under control.
Fernanda Teixeira, the CVM secretary general, has no doubt that disaster preparedness and early warning systems played a major role in minimizing the effect of cyclone Japhet. The authorities, backed by the provincial Red Cross staff and volunteers, issued timely warnings and frequently updated the public about the situation.
"More importantly, the people followed the instructions they received, by staying at home and keeping children out of schools. We did not even suffer any casualty at sea, this time," says Teixeira.
She is also pleased with the Red Cross emergency preparedness. She says it became evident during the CVM intervention during a devastating train crash in August last year that there was a need for more systematic approach with regard to communication and information flow.
"We therefore made a plan of communicating to the provinces via radios at certain times, and then dispatching the information further to a task force within the headquarters. Everyone knew their place and their role. It worked very smoothly," she says.
Holger Leipe, disaster management coordinator in the regional delegation in Harare, shares Teixeira's sense of satisfaction: "The experience gained and lessons learned during previous floods, in combination with the professionalism of the RDRT-trained people, has clearly paid off and is now an obvious asset for the whole region," he says.
The Red Cross societies in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, together with the regional delegation in Harare, will remain on red alert and continue to monitor the risk of flooding until the threat has officially been declared over.