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Southern Africa Is Still Struggling To Understand Scale Of Devastation From Cyclone


This may be one of the worst natural disasters to hit southern Africa in living memory. That's how a United Nations spokesman described the cyclone that struck Mozambique last week and led to flooding throughout the region. The U.N. is pressing countries to donate aid. Hundreds of people are confirmed dead, and that figure is expected to rise.

To get a sense of what it's like on the ground, we reached Gerald Bourke of the U.N. World Food Programme. He was in the city of Beira, Mozambique, specifically at its airport because it had power and phone service. I asked him to describe the damage in the city.

GERALD BOURKE: Not a building was untouched. The power lines are down, pulled down by toppled trees. And there are lots of displaced people in the city. They're sheltering in schools and churches. But it will take months for the people of the city and the city itself to recover from that.

CHANG: Now, I understand that when this storm hit, it hit as a borderline Category 2, Category 3 storm. So at least on that scale, not measured as the most devastating kind of storm. But why do you think the destruction has been so significant in the region?

BOURKE: Well, Mozambique endures six or seven cyclones a year on average. Beira has never before taken a direct hit. So it's not accustomed to significant storms of that magnitude. The buildings reflect that - at least some of them. So there's a certain, I would imagine, fragility in those buildings, and that's why there is so much devastation across the city.

CHANG: And you mentioned that people are sheltering right now in schools and in churches. Is there enough room for everyone? I've heard stories that people are also trying to set up makeshift tents. Is shelter still a problem?

BOURKE: Shelter is a huge problem. Health care is a huge problem. Psychosocial support is a huge problem. Food is needed. The city's water supply is out. Efforts are being made to repair that as quickly as possible. But there's a whole range of problems that these poor people are suffering through.

CHANG: What about medical supplies? What kinds of medical conditions are you concerned will be on the horizon?

BOURKE: Well, there is so much water around that the risk of waterborne diseases is obviously very high.

CHANG: Yeah.

BOURKE: You know, typhoid, for example, cholera. I've not heard of cases, but it's clearly a very high risk.

CHANG: And I hear there's an area about 50 by 60 kilometers that's completely flooded now. It's like a giant lake.

BOURKE: That's correct. That's to the south of Beira. Some of our colleagues have been overflying that area before it was inundated. And it is inundated because a couple of rivers burst their banks quite suddenly. It was a relatively highly populated area - lots of villages. And then suddenly, the waters rushed in. Lots of people took to the roofs and to elevated patches of land. Some of them have been plucked to safety by helicopters and are being treated here in Beira.

But the essential issue is that we do not know the scale of the flooding. Yes, that is, you know, one inland ocean.

CHANG: Right.

BOURKE: But we haven't been able to get the satellite imagery that will give us the full extent of the flooding. Some of that assessment is going to be undertaken by plane tomorrow.

CHANG: Gerald Bourke - he's a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Programme. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us right now.

BOURKE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE SONG, "BLACK CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.