Rescue teams race to save hundreds trapped by Mozambique cyclone

People return to Praia Nova Village neighborhood following Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 17, 2019. Josh Estey/Care International via REUTERS

By Manuel Mucari and MacDonald Dzirutwe

MAPUTO/HARARE (Reuters) – Aid workers scrambled to save hundreds trapped by floods around the Mozambican port city of Beira on Wednesday, after a powerful cyclone killed hundreds of people and left a trail of destruction across swathes of southeast Africa.

Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique’s port city of Beira with winds of up to 170 kph (105 mph) last Thursday, then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi, flattening buildings and putting the lives of millions at risk.

The aftermath of the Cyclone Idai is pictured in Beira, Mozambique, March 17, 2019. Josh Estey/Care International via REUTERS

The aftermath of the Cyclone Idai is pictured in Beira, Mozambique, March 17, 2019. Josh Estey/Care International via REUTERS

At least 200 people have died in Mozambique and 98 in Zimbabwe, but the death toll is likely to rise as rescuers are still finding bodies.

Hundreds were clinging onto trees or roofs, waiting for rescue teams. Roads in and around Beira were swamped and heavy rain was continuing to fall, complicating rescue efforts and meaning that aid had to be flown in by helicopter or plane.

The floods have also brought the threat of waterborne diseases.

“The first thing you see when you arrive is destruction, and a lot of water,” Get Verdonck, an emergency coordinator with the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said from Beira. “People are using well water with no chlorination, and that water is unlikely to be clean, … pneumonia and other respiratory diseases are going to be a problem.”

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi has declared three days of national mourning starting on Wednesday and has said the eventual death toll from the cyclone and ensuing floods could rise to more than 1,000.

On Tuesday, rescuers saved 167 people around Beira with the help of South African Air Force helicopters. The South African shipping firm Grindrod said it would send a container ship with relief supplies from Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, to Beira.

In the eastern Zimbabwe, grieving families rushed to bury their dead because the cyclone had knocked out power supplies and put mortuaries out of action.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on a visit to the town of Chimanimani that his government would ensure houses were built with stronger materials in future. In rural Zimbabwe, many people cannot afford cement to build their houses, leaving them vulnerable to torrential rain and wind.

Malawi has not released details of casualties from the storm, which weakened as it moved further inland. More than 50 people had already died in floods the week before the cyclone hit.

Damage from the Cyclone Idai is seen in Beira, Mozambique, March 19, 2019. International Federation Of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies via REUTERS

Damage from the Cyclone Idai is seen in Beira, Mozambique, March 19, 2019. International Federation Of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies via REUTERS

MOURNING AND DEVASTATION

Drone footage showed residents of a shantytown in Beira still picking through wreckage almost a week after the storm hit and trying to drag plastic sheeting over their ruined homes.

The film, released by the Red Cross, showed the settlement pockmarked with empty plots where whole buildings had been blown off their foundations.

“Great floods have sowed mourning and devastation in various areas of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi,” Pope Francis said on Wednesday. “I express my pain and closeness to those dear people.”

Aid groups said they were struggling to reach many survivors trapped in remote areas of Mozambique where villages were submerged. The European Union’s Earth Observation Programme said on Tuesday that an area of 394 sq km (152 sq miles) was flooded.

The U.N. children’s fund, UNICEF, estimated that 260,000 children were at risk from the devastation.

Beira, a low-lying city of 500,000 people, is home to Mozambique’s second-largest port and serves as a gateway to landlocked countries in the region.

Both Mozambique and Zimbabwe have declared states of emergency in some areas. The cyclone knocked out Mozambican electricity exports to South Africa, exacerbating power cuts that are straining businesses in Africa’s most industrialized economy.

The EU has said it will provide initial emergency aid of 3.5 million euros ($4.0 million) to Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe for emergency shelters, hygiene, sanitation and healthcare. Britain and the United Arab Emirates have also pledged aid.

(Additional reporting by Frank Phiri in Blantyre, Catarina Demony in Lisbon and Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Greek inferno kills at least 80, many missing

An electricity pole stands among burnt trees following a wildfire in Neos Voutzas, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By George Georgiopoulos and Michele Kambas

ATHENS (Reuters) – The death toll from a fire which ripped through a Greek coastal town stood at 80 on Wednesday, with dozens of people unaccounted for as forensic experts tried to identify victims who were burned alive.

With most of the corpses badly charred, identification of the dead will be challenging, experts said, meaning no fast closure in sight for suffering relatives.

Hundreds of people were trapped in the eastern resort of Mati on Monday night as flames whipped around them. Many jumped into the sea to survive, but others died from suffocation either in their cars or trapped on the edge of steep cliffs.

A house burns as a wildfire rages at the village of Mati, near Athens. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

A house burns as a wildfire rages at the village of Mati, near Athens.
REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

The Greek fire brigade said the death of a survivor in hospital had brought the toll up to 80. The service was also receiving dozens of calls reporting missing persons, but it was unclear if some of them were among those found dead, a spokesperson said.

With many burned beyond recognition, Greek coroners began the grim task of trying to identify the victims of the wildfires near Athens, having to rely on DNA or dental records as angst over missing persons mounted among relatives.

“Work has started on identifying the victims of the wildfires but the majority of the bodies are totally charred,” Grigoris Leon, head of the Hellenic Society of Forensic Medicine, told Reuters.

The post-mortems and identification procedures are taking place at a morgue at Shisto, west of Athens. Leon said this will involve teamwork by coroners, forensic dentistry experts from the Athens University’s Dental School, and the Greek police’s forensic service.

Post-mortems to determine the cause of death are mandatory by Greek law and the last stage after the conclusion of identification procedures.

Burnt houses are seen following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Burnt houses are seen following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Rescue teams combed through the area and the sea on Wednesday, trying to locate anything which could offer clarity on the missing, who are thought to number about 40.

“It was a really terrible situation here,” said Finnish tourist Jaakob Makinen. “We had to run away from the hotel, we ran through the beach, along the beach and then we were caught by fire, so kind of surrounded, we had to go into the water,” he told Reuters Television.

He and others spent several hours in the water.

It was unclear what caused the fire, which spread rapidly through Mati, a maze of narrow streets and dense forest. But some suggested that the sheer force of winds, thick pine, fire and panic was a deadly combination making even the most well-executed evacuation plan futile.

“You can’t leave. My house was up in flames in two minutes,” Elias Psinakis, the Mayor of Marathon, told Greece’s SKAI TV. “With eight Beaufort (wind) and pine you don’t even have time.”

“Armageddon,” wrote the daily newspaper Ethnos on its front page, a reference to the Biblical location prophesizing the end of times. It carried a photo of a burned Greek flag hanging among the branches of a charred tree.

A man walks among burnt cars following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

A man walks among burnt cars following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Fires are common in Greece in the summer months. However, one outspoken cleric had at least one theory of what caused it.

In a vitriolic post, Bishop Ambrosios of Kalavryta said it was the wrath of God because Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is a stated atheist. It drew a sharp response from the Church, which distanced itself from the Bishop’s remarks.

Tsipras declared three days of national mourning.

(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou, Alkis Konstantinidis and Vassilis Triantafyllou, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Thai diver dies as rescue teams ponder how to bring out trapped boys

Rescuers carry supplies into the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 5, 2018. Video taken July 5, 2018. Mandatory credit RUAMKATANYU FOUNDATION/Handout via Reuters TV

By Panu Wongcha-um and John Geddie

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – A former Thai navy diver died working to save 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped inside a flooded cave, highlighting the risks for rescue teams trying to find a safe way to bring the group out after 13 days underground.

Dwindling oxygen levels in the cave complex and weather forecasts predicting more heavy rain added to the pressure on authorities to work out a rescue plan.

Members of the media attend a news conference about the death of a Thai rescue diver after he fell unconscious during part of an operation, in front of the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Members of the media attend a news conference about the death of a Thai rescue diver after he fell unconscious during part of an operation, in front of the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Samarn Poonan, 38, a former member of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit, died on Thursday night as he worked underwater in the cave complex, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route, the SEAL commander said.

“We won’t let his life be in vain. We will carry on,” Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew told reporters on Friday.

Samarn was working with a partner placing oxygen tanks in a section of the cave. As they returned, Samarn fell unconscious about 1.5 kms from the cave entrance.

“Once his mission was over he dove back, but in the middle of their return his buddy found Samarn unconscious in the water and tried to pump his heart, but he could not save his life,” the SEAL unit said in a statement.

The diver’s death also highlighted the risks for the boys, who have no scuba diving experience, if authorities decide they should attempt to swim out of the flooded cave.

“A navy SEAL just passed away last night. How about a 12-year-old boy that will have to pass through?” said Rafael Aroush, an Israeli living in Thailand and volunteer at the site.

“There will be rain and many things could go wrong. I don’t want to say it, but it could be a catastrophe,” he said.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed his condolences over Samarn’s death but it would not deter the rescue teams, a spokesman said.

“Authorities have not lost courage because of this,” Thassada Thangkachan told reporters in Bangkok.

Officials warned on Friday that oxygen levels inside the cave have fallen and rescuers were racing to get more oxygen pipes into the cave. They have been working on a five km (three miles) “oxygen pipeline” to prepare for the group’s extraction.

Rescuers, including international teams, are pondering other ways to bring the group out before heavy rains hit the country’s north next week which could further hamper the rescue operation.

In a rare piece of good news, rescuers on Friday cleared enough water from inside the cave to be able to wade to one of the cave’s chambers located about 1.7 kms from the boys’ location without diving.

DEEP WATER

Rescue alternatives include teaching the boys to dive and then swim out, a highly risky venture, remaining in the cave for months until the wet season ends and flood waters recede, or drilling a shaft into the cave from the forest above.

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their assistant coach were found inside the Tham Luang cave in northern Chiang Rai province on Monday, after nine days underground. They went missing after setting out to explore the cave on June 23.

Rescuers have been slowed by logistical issues including high water levels inside the cave and narrow, flooded passages which would require the boys to dive alone.

The navy is teaching the boys the basics of diving, with a view to guiding them out through flood waters.

But getting them out won’t be easy.

The boys will have to be taught how to use scuba diving gear and how to navigate a cave that has frustrated even the most expert divers. Some of the boys cannot swim.

“Regarding the plan for the 13 to swim or dive, there is only one critical point which is risky: It is where every boy has to dive alone,” Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said on Thursday.

Rescuers are considering other options including keeping the 13 inside the cave until the flood waters recede at the end of the rainy season in about four months.

If the weather is on their side and enough water can be pumped out of the cave, the boys could get out the same way they got in, on foot, perhaps with some swimming.

Another option would be to find an alternative way into their chamber, such as drilling a shaft into the cave from the forested mountain above.

(Additional reporting by John Geddie and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in CHIANG RAI, Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Michael Perry and Darren Schuettler)