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Cyclone death toll surges as UN steps up Mozambique aid call

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BEIRA, Mozambique (AFP) — The death toll in Mozambique on Saturday climbed to 417 after a cyclone pummelled swathes of the southern African country, flooding thousands of square kilometres, as the UN stepped up calls for more help for survivors.

Cyclone Idai smashed into the coast of central Mozambique on Friday last week, unleashing hurricane-force winds and rains that flooded the hinterland and drenched eastern Zimbabwe leaving a trail of destruction.

The new numbers take the combined death toll of the two neighbouring countries to 676.

The UN, warning of more suffering, stepped up calls for help in Mozambique as aid agencies struggle to assist tens of thousands of people battered by one of southern Africa’s most powerful cyclones.

A week after the storm lashed Mozambique with winds of nearly 200 kilometres (120 miles) per hour, survivors are struggling in desperate conditions — some still trapped on roof tops and those saved needing food and facing the risk of outbreaks of disease such as cholera.

“The situation will get worse before it gets better,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said Saturday.

“Aid agencies are barely beginning to see the scale of the damage,” she said adding that “entire villages have been submerged, buildings have been flattened, and schools and health care centres have been destroyed”.

The World Food Programme late Friday night declared the flood crisis a level three emergency, putting it on a par with crises in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan.

“The designation will accelerate the massive operational scale-up now underway to assist victims of last week’s Category 4 cyclone and subsequent large-scale flooding that claimed countless lives and displaced at least 600,000 people,” said WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel.

More than two million people have been affected in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and in Malawi where the storm started as a tropical depression causing flooding which killed 60 and displaced nearly a million people.

Hundreds are still missing.

“Now that the world is beginning to grasp the scale of devastation and despair in the wake of Cyclone Idai, we as an international community are at a crucial moment to act,” Verhoosel said.

Humanitarian agencies are racing against the clock to help people, many of whom have not had a meal in days.

Poor sanitary conditions mean disease is now a real concern.

“Already, some cholera cases have been reported in (the port city of) Beira along with an increasing number of malaria infections among people trapped by the flooding,” the International Federation of the Red Cross said in a statement.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders said people were also at risk of respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

“We are living an unprecedented natural disaster. A disaster that only matches major disasters,” said Lands and Environment Minister Celso Correia.

Districts west of Beira resemble an inland lake, and thousands of people are still trapped on roof tops and in trees where they sought to escape the flood waters.

The town of Buzi across the estuary southwest of Beira “has reportedly disappeared, with the water as high as the palm trees,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

“This… is a catastrophe,” said Prime Minister Carlos Antonio do Rosario.

Although water levels are slowly going down, according to the government, the UN humanitarian agency warned of fresh flooding if more rains fall.

“The Zambezi (river) is essentially in flood currently, it’s very high … there is lot of rain in the highlands, the more that flows down to the Zambezi the more likely that is going to break its banks and we will have a second flooding emergency,” said Sebastian Stampa, an OCHA coordinator.

Nearly 90,000 people are already in shelters in central Mozambique.

In Beira, businessman Ibraimo Masquine counted his blessings. “I can’t believe I’m here. I was scared for my life,” he said as he cleared debris from his factory, but he also said there was “no clean water to drink, no food”.

In Beira’s Samora Machel Secondary School, where President Filipe Nyusi was educated, more than 1,000 people have found shelter, with many sleeping on the floor of an indoor basketball court.

“Everything is difficult here. I’m fighting for my children to have something to eat,” said Celeste Dambo.

On Wednesday, crowds of people looted a warehouse, taking away sacks of rice marked “China Aid.”

The main morgue in Beira is crowded with bodies and burials are impossible because the city cemeteries are flooded, the ICRC said.

The ICRC has set up a dedicated website where missing people can be registered.

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