As many as “300 to 400” bodies line the banks of a road out of the city of Beira in Mozambique, according to an eyewitness account, and flood waters have formed an inland ocean that is visible from outer space.
The harrowing scene described by Zimbabwean Graham Taylor, suggests that the human toll of Cyclone Idai is likely to far exceed official estimates. It follows reports from aid agencies on the ground detailing how entire villages and towns have been completely flooded in the wake of last Thursday’s high-end Category 2 storm.
Taylor said the bodies were located on a 6 kilometer (3.7 mile) track of highway, where flood waters had created an inland ocean, submerging entire villages around a “densely populated” sugar-cane plantation. The area is a mere fraction of the land in the southeast African nation left flooded after two major rivers burst their banks in the days following the storm.
Flooding is so extreme in Buzi, central Mozambique, that the water can be seen in satellite images from outer space.
The area is home to some 200,000 people, and CNN spoke to survivors arriving at Praia Nova by boat on Friday.
One man, Abias Felipe, had arrived from the flooded village of Chikezana after surviving the cyclone.
“It broke everything — there’s nothing left there,” he told CNN, adding that rescue teams had started to arrive in the area.
“They’re starting to come but there’s still a lot of people trapped in their homes,” said Felipe. “They say there’s a lot more rain to come today and tomorrow.”
More than one week on from the storm’s initial impact, the United Nations has confirmed 242 dead in Mozambique, with 259 lives lost in Zimbabwe and 56 in Malawi.
But information has been slow to emerge and communication with affected areas remains limited. On Monday, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi said that “everything indicates that we can have a record of more than 1,000 dead” — a figure that some experts now believe could be conservative.
Taylor, 62, who has lived in Mozambique for 10 years, became stranded on Saturday on the highway to Zimbabwe from Beira, where Cyclone Idai made landfall, after flood waters one-meter high blocked the road.
At 3 a.m. on Monday, he abandoned his car and joined the streams of people wading in the pitch black through the waters along the raised highway.
In the dark, he could hear people “sobbing and crying.”
As dawn broke, those sobs began to make sense as a “terrible sight” emerged, Taylor said.
“Dead bodies had floated up (and the) current of the flood water had washed the bodies up against the road,” said Taylor. “The road had subsided about 10 inches (25.5 centimeters). So these bodies had been washed up against the main highway.”
Taylor said the smell of bodies and livestock was palpable.
Hundreds of others were also attempting to make the congested seven-hour walk from the village of Lamego — about 90 kilometers (56 miles) inland from Beira — to Nhamatanda, on higher ground. In places where thecurrent of the flood waters was strong, about 50 people joined hands to make a human chain, said Taylor.
“I’m 6 foot 2 inches (187 centimeters), but the force of water at knee level was powerful,” Taylor said. “You had to pay attention and concentrate where you put your feet.”
Taylor said he saw an elderly woman carry her husband on her back.
On the road out of Beira, he said “the entire area, as far as I could see, was one lake of floodwater,” adding that groups of up to 10 people had climbed eucalyptus, cashew and mango trees waiting to be rescued.
But he also saw people heading back towards the flood zone.
“They said they couldn’t account for their families and wouldn’t leave until they could do,” he said.
Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique on midnight local time on Thursday, March 14, with 175 kph (109 mph) winds,
It wasn’t the strongest storm to have hit Mozambique, but the region had recently been deluged by heavy rains. After lingering off the coast for days, gathering strength, Idai finally dumped a huge amount of water on Beira — a city of 500,000 people — destroying “90%” of the area, according to aid agencies.
One week later, thousands of people remain missing across Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. Millions of others across have been left destitute without food or basic services, according to reports.
The high commissioner for Mozambique in the UK, Filipe Chidumo, said Wednesday that the country needs “a sustained effort on part of the Mozambican government as well as the international community” to help rescue stranded people, and provide, food, sanitation and water for those at risk.
“This is a big tragedy of biblical proportions,” he said, adding that major work will be needed, including the restoration of electricity, water and sanitation to prevent the emergence of waterborne diseases, as well as repairs to public infrastructure.
‘The soils had filled my mouth’
After hitting Mozambique, Cyclone Idai tore into Zimbabwe killing many people as they slept.
The 83-year-old husband of one Chimanimani resident was buried alive when their bedroom collapsed on them last Friday.
“We were sleeping in the house around 10 p.m. in the evening and it was raining. It kept on pouring when rocks sliding from the hill started hitting our house,” said the 59-year-old.
“The stones we built our house with collapsed on us, and then I yelled, ‘oh my, I’m dying!’ The soils had filled my mouth, nose and ears. Water filled the house to almost my neck level … I started to shake my husband’s body to no avail. He was already dead.”
Nearby, another family had abandoned searching for their 16-year-old missing son, who they suspect is buried under the mud.
Efforts to bring aid to those affected by Cyclone Idai are under way in Zimbabwe. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is airlifting food to some of the areas where people are still trapped.
Mnangagwa has declared March 23 and 24 national days of mourning.
“I want some shelter, I have none,” said one Chimanimani resident. “I have no blankets. No pots. My plates, sofas were all destroyed … I do not know if I will survive or not.”