BY OBEY MANAYITI/KENNETH NYANGANI/RUTENDO MATANHIKE
At least 31 people have died in Manicaland’s Chimanimani district as homes and bridges were swept away by a tropical storm that began on Friday.
There are fears that the death toll is much higher as some of the worst affected areas had become inaccessible for the authorities to assess the damage caused by Cyclone Idai.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa last night declared areas already hit or are likely to be hit by the heavy rains a state of disaster.
The cyclone that was moving at a speed of 170km per hour left a massive trail of destruction in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts and had since reached Masvingo by last night.
Among those who died are two pupils from St Charles Lwanga Secondary School after a rock fall from a nearby mountain hit the dining hall.
The hall collapsed onto a dormitory where the pupils were sleeping.
A number of people were caught unaware in the mountainous area with dense forests that has become difficult to access as uprooted trees and rocks are blocking roads.
Thousands were left homeless as houses were destroyed, most of them mud houses in the rural areas.
Several people were reported missing.
According to police, a bus carrying 12 people that was attempting to cross a flooded river was washed away, but nine managed to survive while three are missing.
Information ministry permanent secretary Nick Mangwana said the government was making frantic efforts to rescue the victims but was facing challenges in accessing the affected areas.
“The government has deployed both the army and air force on the ground, private ambulances, council ambulances and government ambulances and all emergency services are assisting in a coordinated way,” he said.
“The challenges are that a number of bridges were swept away and rivers are flooded and it is very difficult to access the hardest hit area, which is Chimanimani East.
“The biggest challenge is accessing that area and that on the ground it is difficult as well to access the area from the air because of strong winds that are blowing into the area.
“It is unsafe to fly into the area as well and that hampers air efforts to rescue those who are marooned.
“The army is closing in from the ground and they are moving to rescue children who are distressed and stranded at Lwanga school.”
Mangwana said although the biggest number of fatalities was from Chimanimani East, the Rusitu area in the same district had five casualties.
Mangwana said all rescue efforts were being coordinated via the Chipinge area where there was less damage.
He said they were working with many partners to ensure that all vulnerable groups were assisted.
“The situation is not ideal, but all humanly possible efforts are being made to ensure that people don’t suffer unnecessary distress and save lives if that can be avoided,” Mangwana said.
Zimbabwe Red Cross Society head of communications Stambuli Kim said although some areas were inaccessible as a result of the damage, his organisation was working with various stakeholders in assisting the affected communities.
“As Cyclone Idai wreaks havoc in Manicaland province with lives lost and some people injured and missing, the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society, working with the department of Civil Protection and other relevant departments and stakeholders, is on the ground delivering relief materials,” Kim said.
“We have our teams on the ground and the Red Cross as of today [yesterday] had delivered non-food items inclusive of 300 blankets, 300 tarpaulins, 20 boxes of soap, 49 mosquito nets, 300 buckets, 115 compressible jerry cans, and 15 000 water guards to the affected communities.”
Meanwhile, police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed that a TripTrans bus was swept away in Chimanimani.
“The Zimbabwe Republic Police is urging motorists to be cautious as the nation braces for the impact of Cyclone Idai in some parts of the country,” he said in a statement.
“The police appeal follows an incident in Chimanimani on 15 March 2019 where a TripTrans bus which had 12 occupants tried to cross a flooded river near Skyline Area and was swept away.
“Nine people survived and are currently seeking shelter at a mountain whilst three others, who include two women and the conductor, are missing. The bus is yet to be retrieved or located from the river.”
In Masvingo, the cyclone uprooted roofs at Mutimurefu Prison while two primary school pupils reportedly died in Bikita’s Mukore area after the hut they were sheltering in collapsed.
In another related matter, legislators from Chipinge attending a threeday Parliamentary portfolio committee on lands, agriculture water and climate and thematic committee on indigenisation and empowerment meeting had to leave hurriedly after distress calls from their respective areas.
Chipinge South MP Enock Porusingazi said his wife only survived by climbing a tree.
“I am going back to my constituency, my wife survived the cyclone after climbing a tree and my house was also damaged at our farm and this is where my wife was at the time. I need to be on the ground and see the best way I can help,” he said.
“My neighbours had to call me saying my wife’s life was in danger, at least she is alive and I am concerned about the displaced people in my constituency.”
Mathias Mlambo of Chipinge East said he was cutting short his trip as many people in his constituency were displaced.
“l am going back to my constituency because every minute I am getting a call that the situation is not well, I am told almost 20 houses have been damaged,” he said
“I can’t be seen sleeping in a hotel when the situation is like this and I am told the Tanganda bridge has been damaged but I will find a way to go home.”
Acting Manicaland provincial administrator Wilson Boore said 67 households had been destroyed in Chipinge district.
MDC spokesperson Jacob Mafume said they had received distress calls from party structures in Manicaland.
“A serious humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Chimanimani, Chipinge,” he tweeted.
“Most of our structures’ comms are down. We need state intervention on a massive scale to avoid biblical disaster, homes bridges being washed away, lives in danger.”
Zimbabwe has faced a severe drought this year that has damaged crops and a United Nations humanitarian agency says 5,3 million people will require food aid this year.
The meteorological services department expects rains to continue throughout the weekend. — Additional reporting by Reuters.