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01/03/2019 – Cyclone Idai

Cyclone Idai 2019

Interview with Mrs R Bham

Wednesday morning, 13 March 2019. Rehana is preparing her daily routine in the Akhalwayas supermarket that she owns and operates in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The reporter over the radio wraps up the news with the weather forecast; a cyclone is building up over Madagascar and heading west, to Mozambique. Rehana stops her work for a second and listens. Cyclone Idai, as this one is named, is likely to build up to a devastating category 5 cyclone. If it makes landfall at that strength, the consequences would be severe. Rehana thinks about the friends and community members in Vilanculos where she has a house that was to be the family’s retirement house until her husband passed away 2years previously. She chats via Whatsapp to a friend in Beira. They are scared. Landfall is expected on Thursday night.

In Vilanculos, the talk of the town is about Idai. Will the cyclone make landfall at category 5, and if so, where will it hit? Communication over the 3G network increases.

Then she makes a call to a friend who is ever ready for a disaster. Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of The Gift of the Givers, the largest NGO in the southern hemisphere answers. He tells her that they are already in full planning mode evaluating the risk of Idai. They know that risk is a formula of impact multiplied by probability, and both are increasing by the hour.

Photo Credit: Off Road Rescue Unit

Then it happens, Cyclone Idai makes landfall on March 15th. The city of Beira, its international airport, and its deep seaport are destroyed at large. Thousands have resorted to higher ground and, unfortunately, many are killed. Electricity and water supply are disrupted. The telephone network is down …no one knows just how bad the situation is.

Vilanculos, located 350 kilometers further south, thankfully misses the hit. Community members are desperate for information as there is no communication from Friday. How bad is the situation up north, and what can we do?

Then the panicked voice recordings start coming in. It is a major disaster.

Shortly after Idai hit land, Gift of the Givers deploys its carefully selected teams from South Africa to Beira by road and by air, after the runway is cleared.

Part of the team that deployed by road is The Off-Road Rescue Unit of South Africa, with their heavy four by four vehicles, equipped with radio communication, navigation equipment, and medical supplies. Little do they know that cyclone Idai has driven the Indian Ocean into the mainland, creating an impassible saltwater lake between Beira and Vilanculos, that makes Beira unreachable by road.

The team takes two full days to reach Vilanculos where they meet up with Rehana’s community and establish a forward operating base. From there, a small Off-Road Rescue recce team continues north about 250 kilometers until the point where the road is swallowed by the sea, at the town of Estequina.

Estequina is hit extremely hard, and the situation is dreadful. Many have disappeared or died. There is no water, power, food, or medical supplies and the water levels keep rising. People are finding higher ground on the roofs of the houses that are still standing or hanging on for dear life in trees, holding their children. An accompanying problem is the problem of snakes, that are also finding higher ground at the scarce space available.

Rehana, still in Johannesburg and just communicating via Whatsapp, decides to drive up herself. The telephone network in Beira is down at large and the information supply is little or non-existent, and she wants to help. She makes the 16hr journey to Vilanculos where she meets up with the rescue teams. She organises community members to start packing food, water, pots, hygiene packs, and essentials, generously paid for by Gift of The Givers and donated by the amazing Vilanculos community. Triton, the local logistics and distribution company in Vilancoulas, makes storage space available. Everybody helps. Donations started coming on stream both locally and Internationally. Boats and even jet skis are offered to the Rescue Teams to perform river searches for survivors.

For the following days, the teams work closely together following the guidelines of Rescue, Relief, and Restoration.

The Rescue phase involves locating and rescuing survivors and bring them to safety. The Relief phase involves the set-up of medical camps, operated by Gift of the Givers’ medical staff, and the distribution of food and aid to the refugee camps. The Restoration phase will take place for a long period thereafter. Farmland is largely destroyed, and the quality of the water is decreasing fast allowing diseases to spread quickly.

In Beira in the meantime, air traffic is increasing bringing food and supply. The 3G network, however, is still affected, making it impossible to communicate without a satellite phone or the two-way radio network that Off-Road Rescue has established over long distances. GPS coordinates are communicated between Estequina and Beira and transport helicopters are resupplying the Rescue Teams.

For the next seven days, it is a race against the clock: receiving and dispatching food and aid, treating patients. Eventually, the United Nations and the Red Cross arrive and the Rescue Teams, battered and exhausted, hand over to them. They debrief, say their farewells to the communities, and make their way home, to their loved ones and families.

Sitting in a coffee shop in Bedfordview, two years later, Rehana smiles and tells us that there was no way she would not help and that the power of the communities and the Rescue Units working together gave her so much hope for this world. She ends by saying that she will assist again, without hesitation, if the situation would so require again.

Mozambique is prone to cyclones every year. Some of them make landfall as a tropical storm, affecting communities and infrastructure. Some of them are severe, with total disaster as consequence. Our Rescue Unit remains on standby, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. So That Others May Live… 

The mission of the Off-Road Rescue Unit (ORRU) is to provide competent, efficient volunteer emergency search and rescue services dedicated to saving human life, and able to operate in rough and difficult terrain conditions alongside other search and rescue services in times of natural or man-made, civil disaster or emergency.