Severe storms and torrential rains have wreaked damage across Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga this week. At least 25 people have been killed, several hundred people have been displaced and millions of rands’ worth of property was damaged. By KHADIJA PATEL, with additional reporting by ERIN MCLUCKIE.
Victor Ntshangase, an aid worker from the Gift of the Givers charity, narrowly escaped a lightning strike in Ladysmith on Monday.
“We were in Ladysmith, where the disaster happened, delivering food parcels. We were about to jump off the truck when the lightning struck,” Ntshangase says.
“We were so afraid. There was nowhere to run, because the people – where we were delivering the parcels – they had no roof at their house. There was no roof at all,” he stresses.
After waiting for the lightning to pass, Ntshangase, together with his colleagues and emergency services personnel, rushed to the assistance of the homeowners.
The house was completely destroyed.
This week, Gift of the Givers announced it would deliver aid worth R1 million to Ladysmith.
The injection of emergency assistance has helped alleviate the plight of some of the worst affected, but the situation still remains dire.
Abed Karrim, Disaster Projects Co-Ordinator from Al Imdaad Foundation, another NGO working in Ladysmith, stresses that although the town is renowned for being prone to flooding, it was hail damage that raised the humanitarian emergency.
“The roofs of 1,500 homes have been destroyed, several cars were damaged and many people have been displaced,” Karrim explains.
According to Karrim, the plastic sheeting that is currently needed to secure houses whose roofs have been destroyed is unavailable in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal.
Karrim says his organisation was co-ordinating relief efforts with government, who dispatched an assessment team to the region to ascertain whether the affected places qualified as a disaster area.
Ladysmith is no stranger to disaster, and is still licking its wounds from the last bout of severely damaging storms. “Many people are yet to recover from the damage of the storms seven years ago,” says Abed, who is also a Ladysmith resident. “Some people still haven’t even fixed their roofs from those storms.”
Elsewhere in the province, four people were injured when a goods train carrying timber plunged into the Amanzimtoti River on Tuesday. Rising river levels had eroded the sand from under the train tracks, causing the train to plunge several metres into torrential waters.
And in Chatsworth near Durban, one woman and two children were killed by mudslides. Saleem Sayed from Gift of the Givers said about 300 people had been displaced and 200 homes had been damaged.
Another nine homeless people were rescued from the flooded Umbilo River on Tuesday morning. They were said to be sleeping under the M4 bridge when the water level rose and trapped them.
At least 11 people have died as a result of the heavy rains in Kwazulu-Natal in the last week.
Lucky Makhwedzha, a weather forecaster with Weather SA in Durban, said severe storms could occur every three months during the rainy season, but that there was no set pattern. “Warnings were issued for the past two days about the storm,” he said, adding that the occurrence of flooding after two days of heavy rainfall was normal.
The weather is nonetheless expected to improve this week. Despite a predicted 30% chance of rain, the two pressure systems (a combination of surface high and cut-off low pressure systems) that caused the chaotic weather will begin moving away, according to Weather SA.
In Mpumalanga, a bridge on the R65 between Ermelo and Lothair collapsed in heavy rain on Monday night. Joseph Mabuza, spokesperson for the department of community safety in Mpumalanga, said four vehicles, one of them a taxi, crashed into the broken bridge.
“Fourteen people have been confirmed dead, whilst eight were injured, with five already being discharged [from hospital],” Mabuza said. “We have sent officials to the affected families to conduct a needs analysis so we can assist them better.”
He said local government usually received warnings of extreme weather from Weather SA, but this does not necessarily prevent disasters from occurring – nor is the information foolproof. “Weather SA predicted 80mm of rainfall and it was actually 90mm,” he explained.
Disaster management committees of the affected provinces have continued to urge members of the communities to be cautious, and not to dwell near riverbanks and low-lying areas.
The strain on government is set to outlast the weather, however, as various local government departments scramble to react to the damage.
On Monday, Co-Operative Governance MEC Nomusa Dube said KwaZulu-Natal would need millions of rands to help those homesteads hit by hailstorms in the province.
Government Communications and Information System (GCIS) Acting Chief Executive Officer Phumla Williams called for more support from other roleplayers in the affected regions. She said government would intensify its efforts to find those that were reported to be still missing and provide continuous assistance to those affected.
Speaking to the United Nations IRIN network in January this year, the director of the African Centre for Disaster Studies at North West University, Dewald van Niekerk, said the disasters that accompany torrential rains in South Africa highlight the weaknesses of the country’s disaster preparedness.
South Africa passed its Disaster Management Act in 2002, mandating that national, provincial and municipal disaster management centres be established and that all provinces and municipalities have disaster management plans. “Our Disaster Management Act is very specific about the definition of a disaster as something that has happened or threatens to occur. It doesn’t seem like people are paying attention to the threatened part,” Van Niekerk told IRIN.
With the rainy season set to continue through most of the country through the following two months, scrutiny on the capacity of government to prevent weather related natural disaster will be severely tested. DM
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