The death toll from South Africa’s “unprecedented” floods rose to 341 on Thursday as helicopters swept over the southeastern city of Durban in an increasingly desperate search for survivors.
With roads and bridges washed away this week by excessive rainfall, rescuers have been fighting to deliver supplies in the city, where some residents have been without power or water since Monday.
“The devastation to human life, infrastructure and service network in the province is unprecedented,” said Sihle Zikalala, the Prime Minister of KwaZulu-Natal Province.
“A total of 40,723 people have been affected. Unfortunately, 341 deaths have been recorded,” he told a news conference.
At a small airfield north of Durban, helicopters carried rescuers in and out. The air support was drawn by the army and police, but also by a fleet of volunteers, private contractors and schools.
But a day after the rains finally abated, fewer survivors were found, said Travis Trower, director of the volunteer organization Rescue South Africa.
After 85 calls on Thursday, he said his teams had only found bodies.
“It’s a shame, but we’re doing our best for as many people as possible,” he said.
The government has not given an indication of how many people are missing. Zikalala predicted that the damage bill will run into the billions of rand (hundreds of millions of dollars, euros)
Call for shelter
President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared the region a disaster to release aid funds.
Authorities said they had set up 17 shelters for more than 2,100 displaced people.
As they entered their fourth day without power or water, Durban’s poorest residents lined up on Thursday to collect water from burst pipes and dig through layers of mud to retrieve their few possessions.
There was a sense of despair amid the stench of sewage, which grew stronger as the devastated rains stopped and the tropical heat returned.
Occasional protests broke out in some areas over the slow recovery of services and a lack of aid.
The Durban City Council asked for patience.
“We understand the frustration and fear of our residents,” the statement said.
“We are working as fast as we can. Our teams are working hard to resume services. However, due to the extent of damage to access roads, it may take time to fully restore all services.”
The government of the KwaZulu-Natal province has also launched a public appeal for help, urging people to donate non-perishable food, bottled water, clothing and blankets.
But many survivors said they were left to their own devices.
In Amaoti, a township north of Durban, residents balanced precariously on the embankment of a collapsed road as they tried to get clean water from a broken pipe below.
“We have no water, there is no electricity… people from (everywhere) come to get water,” Thabani Mgoni, 38, amid the crowd told AFP.
Philisiwe Mfeka, a 78-year-old grandmother, said her water supply was cut off on Tuesday.
Even the water from the broken pipe was rationed to one bucket per person, with children, some as young as 10, coming to get one bucket each.
On a riverbank, families washed whatever clothes they could find in muddy water, amid severed pipes sticking out of the earth.
In a pitch-black hall in Durban’s Glebelands, volunteers in a dingy block of flats used cell phone flashlights to illuminate their records of dozens of displaced persons at night.
“We just help people because we care about them,” said Mabheki Sokhela, 51, who helped organize temporary shelters at a community center.
He urged fellow residents to provide shelter for the victims. “There’s not enough space,” he said.
Many victims slept on chairs or on cardboard on the floor.
Weather experts say apocalyptic amounts of rain have fallen in the region over several days.
Some areas received more than 450 millimeters (18 inches) in 48 hours, representing nearly half of Durban’s annual rainfall of 1,009 mm, the national weather service said.
The South African Weather Service has warned over the Easter weekend of thunderstorms and localized flooding in KwaZulu-Natal and the neighboring Free State and Eastern Cape provinces.
The country is still struggling to recover from the two-year-old Covid pandemic and deadly riots last year that killed more than 350 people.
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