Despair in Malawi as cyclone Freddy destroys homes and lives

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Residents of Blantyre’s Chilobwe township, one of the areas worst hit by tropical cyclone Freddy, were woken in the early hours by the roaring sound of mud and water as Malawi was battered by the storm taking a second shot at southern Africa.

By Tuesday afternoon, authorities had counted 190 people dead in Malawi, with hundreds more injured and missing. The official death toll in neighbouring Mozambique stood at 20.

Many of the dead were killed by mudslides in hilly Blantyre, Malawi’s second-biggest city. Torrential rain swept away thousands of homes and uprooted trees, leaving residents staring in disbelief at the huge ravines in the roads and having to clamber across makeshift bridges as the rain continued.

Bodies were still being brought out from the devastation.

Some residents had lucky escapes.

Local resident Robert Campbell opened his door when he heard a child screaming for help, and mud rushed in.

“The girl was trapped in the mud at the edge of the torrent when some of the neighbours managed to reach her,” he told Reuters, standing in his house where mud blocked the windows and covered the floor.

The unidentified girl was covered in mud up to her head when neighbours found her, said another local resident, Aaron Ntambo.

“Even though the water was very strong, we managed to cross and rescue her. It was very difficult but we managed to pull her out,” he said.

Freddy, one of the longest-lasting and strongest tropical storms ever recorded, has left a trail of destruction after it circled back to hit the region for a second time over the weekend since first making landfall last month.

Aina Pigoti, 64, and her seven children escaped the surge and sought shelter at a relative’s house after their home in the township of Mbayani was destroyed.

“We just saw a big swell of water and we ran away. When were turned, all our goods had been swept away and the house collapsed,” Pigoti said.

The scale of the damage and loss of life is still unknown as search and rescue operations continue.

Almost 60 000 people have been affected, of which about 19 000 were displaced from their homes, Malawi’s government said.

For 76-year-old James Davison, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

A retired bricklayer from Blantyre who once helped build the leafy hilltop mansion of Malawi’s first president is now destitute after his properties were wrecked by the cyclone.

“I have lost six houses which I was letting out. They were my retirement package and all I had,” he said.

For others, the destruction is beyond property.

Huddled under umbrellas outside a mortuary in Blantyre, grief-stricken families waited to identify loved ones.

Volunteers at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital mortuary braved the rain, as they loaded the victims onto stretchers.

“The dead bodies are coming and coming. We are receiving 10 or more at a time. For me, this is overwhelming,” said Erik Ntemba, a mortuary attendant in front of a pile of coffins.