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Cyclone Freddy shattered records. People lost everything. How does the healing begin?

Cyclone Freddy, which battered southeast Africa over the past month, broke all kinds of meteorological records. The U.N.'s weather agency is currently accessing whether it is the longest cyclone ever recorded – lasting at least 36 days. And it's already broken the record for all-time accumulated cyclone energy in the Southern Hemisphere, a measure of the storm's strength over time, beating the previous record set by Cyclone Fantala in 2016.

The cyclone is also unusual for its looping trajectory, how far it traveled – almost 5,000 miles – as well as how often it dissipated and then re-strengthened.

It formed off the coast of Australia in early February and then crossed the Southern Indian Ocean, making landfall on the island of Madagascar before moving west into Mozambique in late February. It then did a loop, pummeling Mozambique again last weekend and then lashing Malawi, which has declared a state of disaster. It has already killed more than 400 in total and displaced tens of thousands of people, with figures likely to rise. 

Many scientists say the world is likely to see weather phenomenon like cyclones become more extreme due to the warming of the oceans. This week the U.S. state of California was also inundated with floods, but for countries like Malawi and Mozambique – among the poorest in the world – dealing with the aftermath of such large-scale disasters is especially challenging.

Four years ago, Mozambique experienced one of the worst-ever tropical cyclones to ever hit Africa, Cyclone Idai. I flew to Beira to report on rescue operations and was amazed at the scale of the damage, particularly the human toll.

I spoke to people who had spent days up trees or clinging to roofs to avoid the flood waters, eating leaves to survive. Many children didn't know where their parents were, and there were parents desperately searching for children. One rescued woman said people in her area had been eaten by crocodiles, and a foreign aid worker told me what haunted him most was the survivors' rotting feet – from days of standing in water.

To help with the current situation in the aftermath of Freddy, Mozambique's government has announced $4 million in funds to start rebuilding. And Malawi — which saw six months' worth of rain in six days – has earmarked $3 million dollars for reconstruction and also called for more international help. The United Nations has released $10 million in emergency funds.

Mary Galvin, a professor of development studies at the University of Johannesburg who specializes in water issues and climate change, told NPR that while Africa as a continent is the world's lowest greenhouse gas emitter – responsible for fewer than 4% of global emissions — it will continue to bear the brunt of extreme weather events.

"We'll see more devastation like that brought by Cyclone Freddy. It's expected the African continent will be devastated by such events, disproportionately affecting the poor and vulnerable," she told NPR.

"While lessons were learnt and since applied, the increased frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events means we must urgently double down on our efforts, provide immediate humanitarian assistance and support recovery and further resilience," said United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Mozambique Myrta Kaulard.

So what are the challenges of rebuilding – both in terms of infrastructure and people's lives? Those are some of the questions I put to Alcidio Benjamim, a local aid worker who's on the ground in the cyclone-affected area in Mozambique with Africa-based humanitarian NGO ForAfrika. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What's the situation like in Mozambique at the moment?

Cyclone Freddy has just made landfall in Mozambique for the second time [on March 12], and this time around it had its landfall in Zambezia province and it brought with it wind speeds up to 150 kph [93 mph] and also gusts up to 213 km per hour [132 mph]. So it was very intense. There is a lot of destruction. It's not only the houses but also the public infrastructure. I'm talking about hospitals and schools, and also the water supply system [and] the power system as there are many poles fallen in the street. [Humanitarian workers] are facing challenges because roads are flooded and muddy [so] some of the areas you cannot drive to. So there's also a challenge with regards to access.

What do people need most urgently and what's lacking?

At this moment what is priority is to make sure that the people who are affected at least have food. They also need non-food items to protect themselves and make sure they don't get sick. I'm talking about blankets, I'm talking about tarpaulins that may help some of them at least cover their house or build a small shelter. And also water purifiers. It's very important to have a safe water supply as contamination can happen.

Is the worst of the storm over?

You know it is still raining in some of the areas. We're assuming that damages may continue.

What will the rebuilding process look like?

As people return, they are going to need support to be able to rebuild their houses. And if we look at the government, they're also going to need to rebuild the public infrastructure. We have a lot of hospitals that were partially or completely destroyed. There are also hundreds of schools that have been partially and completely destroyed.

What are some of the unforeseen consequences of this storm?

Some of the accommodation centers do not have lights. It's a bit worrying to have women and girls and children in a place where there is no light.

Are waters expected to recede soon? When will the country recover?

There are places we are going to have the water drop down, but there are places where the water is going to be there for a very long period of time. But one thing I can tell you is that this is going to take a very long time. It's going to be more than three months because the situation is really terrible.

That's when we can also tackle the food security issue. What should be done is that people should be able to produce their own food to make sure they have something to eat and also have a surplus that they can sell. For that they need seeds and tools to help them produce because most of them live on the basis of subsistence agriculture.

Is there a fear children could drop out of school? Did that happen after Idai?

There were events like that. People had to go and live somewhere else that was far from the school their children were attending previously so they were not able to return to that school [and it might not be a priority for families to sign their kids up for another school]. So we can also expect the same situation as an impact of Cyclone Freddy.

At the moment children are not attending classes because schools are being used as accommodation centers, so there is not yet a day that has been confirmed [for schools to reopen].

How does Freddy compare to Idai in 2019, which you also lived through?

Both devastated the country. But the difference is that Idai came once but Cyclone Freddy made landfall twice in Mozambique. Cyclone Freddy has taken longer than Idai, we see the numbers [of people affected] are still increasing. We'll be able later on to see which one has affected more people.

Did Mozambique learn lessons from Idai that will be helpful in dealing with Freddy?

It did help quite a lot, not only for the government, not only for NGOs, but also for the people in general. At least [in] areas affected by Cyclone Idai, people now know when there's a cyclone coming what they should be doing. So if we look at Sofala province, which was affected by Cyclone Idai, every time that they hear that the cyclone is coming, they pack bags with quite a lot of sand and then put them on the roofs of their houses, just to make sure the zinc sheets are not removed by the wind. Another thing is that people have learned that when there's a cyclone coming they have to leave those areas that are at risk: the areas nearby a river, a lake.

If we look to the government as well, in terms of sensitization and also mobilizing resources, I think they've learned also. The government has made sure they disseminate information regarding moving to a safe place.

There are bound to be more cyclones. Is there any way people can protect their homes in the future?

That's something that's going to be difficult. We still have people in Mozambique who live in huts. So huts cannot resist most of the time cyclone events.

How difficult is it to help people cope psychologically?

There is psychological support that has to be given, and this is what we're also doing on the ground at the accommodation center we're supporting. There are therapists, but a very limited number. We have a group of people who had lost everything with Cyclone Idai and now they've lost everything again, so they can be re-traumatized.

I heard a story of this woman who was crying because she'd lost everything she had and she didn't know what to do. Her house was completely destroyed. And she's a widow, about 58 years old, and no one is there to support her. She doesn't have money. So if we look at someone like that — what can you expect? What's she going to do?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kate Bartlett