The death toll in Malawi from Cyclone Freddy has risen to 326, the country’s president said Thursday, bringing the total number of victims across southern Africa to more than 400 since February.
Rescuers were unearthing more bodies as the chances of finding survivors faded after the cyclone followed a highly unusual course by returning to lash southern Africa’s mainland a second time.
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“As of yesterday, the death toll from this disaster has risen from 225 to 326,” Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera said in the devastated southern region near the commercial hub Blantyre.
“The number of people displaced has more than doubled to 183,159, as has the number of households displaced, which now stands at 40,702,” he added.
Chakwera renewed his appeal for global aid as rescuers continued to seek survivors on Thursday from the flooding and mudslides caused by torrential rains this week.
More than 300 emergency shelters have been set up for survivors, while the army and police have been deployed to deal with the crisis.
Two weeks of national mourning and a state of emergency have been decreed in the country.
“The cyclone has destroyed property, homes, crops, and infrastructure, including bridges that have cut off communities that desperately need help,” Chakwera said.
The cyclone first struck southern Africa in late February, striking Madagascar and Mozambique but causing only limited damage in landlocked Malawi.
The storm then moved back out over the Indian Ocean, where it drew more power from the warm waters before making a rare course reversal to slam into the mainland a second time.
The rains have eased since Wednesday but Freddy is still on track to become one of the world’s longest tropical storms.
In Mozambique, the storm has caused at least 73 deaths and displaced tens of thousands of people over the past weeks and killed a further 17 people in Madagascar.
Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi has also appealed for emergency aid to rebuild destroyed infrastructure after visiting the stricken province of Zambezia, which borders Malawi.
– ‘Overwhelming stench’ –
Lacking sniffer dogs and armed just with shovels, rescuers in Malawi made a grim hunt for buried and decomposing bodies lying amid the debris from destroyed homes.
In Manje, a township around 15 kilometres (nine miles) south of Blantyre, five bodies were recovered after locals said they had spotted bubbles forming under the muddy rubble.
“The overwhelming stench in the air is a clear sign that the corpses are rotting underneath,” said an elderly resident, Rose Phiri, as she watched the machine spade through the rubble.
Meteorologists say the cyclone is exceptional in its duration and has characteristics consistent with warnings about climate change.
“It’s been an incredibly long-lasting storm. We can see from today’s satellite imagery and from the last couple of days it has dissipated,” Randall Cerveny of the World Meteorological Organization told AFP.
Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said the warm ocean “is a key aspect contributing to rapid intensification of cyclones”.
“Cyclone Freddy underwent rapid intensification seven times during its lifetime,” he said.