Over 500 dead as Cyclone Freddy tears through Southern Africa

A fierce tropical storm has killed hundreds in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar and is set to break the record as the longest-lasting cyclone ever.

Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which developed over Australia’s Indian Ocean coast region in early February, travelled a record distance of more than 8,000km (4,970 miles) to make landfall in Madagascar and Mozambique in late February. Now, Freddy has hit Southern Africa for a second time. The death toll in southeast Africa due to the longest-lasting tropical cyclone ever recorded has risen to 525, according to local authorities in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar.  More than 1,000 people have been injured, 85 are missing and 95,000 have been displaced.

Mourning period

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera has declared 14 days of mourning and pledged $1.5 million in assistance. He has also called for more aid, stating that his country’s capacity to provide relief is limited. “What is happening to us can happen to anyone, anywhere. Let the world come in and help Malawi because we cannot afford to be going backwards instead of forward in terms of all the provisions that Malawians need.

Malawian President Mr. Chakwera
The President of Malawi visiting victims of Cyclone Feddy at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital © Lazarus Chakwera

Climate change is real, and what we are having to see is devastation: thirteen months, three devastating cyclones. We are trying to do the best we can to help our people. The impact caused by the Cyclone reveals the magnitude of physical & emotional pain caused. We will not relent but support everyone affected. Efforts also intensified to account for those still missing,” Chakwera stressed.

Mango tree saved musician

Gibo Pearson, a Malawian music producer and artist based in Bokosi village in the Phalombe districts, told LifeGate how he survived the devastating floods by climbing a mango tree with 14 other villagers in the middle of the night.

cyclone freddy in malawi
Musician Giboh Pearson survived the floods caused by Cyclone Freddy by climbing a mango tree © Giboh Pearson

“I was deep asleep, but around 04:00, I felt like my body was floating. I heard voices shouting my name from outside, it was at this point I realised my mattress was floating in water that had filled up the house to waist level. The moment I got out of the house, another powerful body of water and mudslides with rolling stones arrived and knocked my house to the ground. My car got carried away and smashed into a nearby church and everyone was confused until one man shouted, ‘Let’s climb trees! That’s how the 14 of us hurried and started climbing mango trees,” Pearson recounted.

The wrath of the storm

Watson Kapalamula, another Cyclone Freddy survivor from Blantyre in the south of Malawi, says he will never forget the wrath of the storm. “We were in the house on the evening of March 13, when we heard a loud noise, water and stones rolling down in a nearby stream. We came out of the house to check what was happening, and as we were standing at the veranda, in less than two minutes, another loud noise caught our ears and that was the back of our house falling down,” he said. Before he could decide where to run to with his two small children, “a strong moving body of water swept us away.”

Watson Kapalamula and his children stand outside the remains of their destroyed house  © Watson Kapalamula

Furthermore, Kapalamula – who is a widower – said he and his children got caught in the branches of a big fig tree about 50 metres from his house mud brick house. “If it had not been for that fig tree, my children and I would have been dead by now. God has saved us through nature. People take trees for granted,” he said.

Feeling hopeless

Meanwhile, twenty-one-year-old Nancy Mwale said that she lost her uncle and some family members when the storm made landfall. “I’ve personally lost my beloved uncle and some other family members. This monster has destroyed property, homes, crops and infrastructure, including bridges, isolating communities in desperate need of assistance. Unemployment will increase and hunger will increase the situation is dire,” she said in an interview.

Nancy Mwale pose for a picture outside her maize field; luckily, her crops were spared by the storm ©  Nancy Mwale

She continued, “The storm caused torrential floods and deadly mudslides, which swept away roads and buried homes in mud. We keep experiencing power cuts and many people need urgent medical attention. I don’t know when we will recover from this disaster.”

Freddy’s historic journey

The record-breaking Cyclone Freddy became a storm on 6 February when it developed off the coast of Australia. A few days later, Freddy moved to the south until it was about 660km northeast of Broome, where it took a turn to the west. Surprisingly, whilst in Australian waters, Freddy posed no threat to the mainland, even as it became a category 4 severe tropical cyclone with wind gusts of up to 265km/h. On February 14, Freddy eventually left Australia and crossed the Indian Ocean for seven days covering a record distance of more than 8,000 kilometres (4,970 miles) It made landfall in Madagascar on 21 February and began pounding the highland before reaching Mozambique on 24 February.

Strangely, after raging through Mozambique for a couple of days, Freddy retreated back to the Indian Ocean where it gained energy from the ocean’s warm waters, before reversing course and coming back with much more ferocious strength on March 11; its second landfall saw wind gusts of up to 200 km/h (125mph).

Freddy to set new world record

Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization has announced that it will set up an expert committee to evaluate whether tropical cyclone Freddy has broken the record as the longest-lasting tropical cyclone ever recorded. The current record holder of the longest-lasting tropical storm is held by Tropical Cyclone Leon-Eline from February 2000. Leon-Eline travelled 11,000 kilometres from near Bali to end up in Namibia on Africa’s western coast over a 29-day period.

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