KZN’S DEADLY TWISTER
‘I didn’t believe my eyes when I saw the tornado’
KZN Midlands residents gathered under dark skies on Wednesday 13 November to pick up the pieces after a lethal tornado, rain, hail and wind flattened houses, trees and crops, leaving hundreds destitute and thousands without power.
First published by The Witness.
Two people were killed and at least 18 injured when the tornado hit Mpolweni in KwaZulu-Natal’s Midlands late on Tuesday afternoon.
Many houses and informal dwellings were completely flattened, and the area was littered with torn-off corrugated iron roof sheets, branches and uprooted trees.
Mpolweni, New Hanover and surrounding areas, as well as parts of Hilton were battered by intense winds. The storm caused major damage to infrastructure, and left about 15,000 people in Mpolweni, Dalton, Albert Falls and Swayimane without electricity, Eskom said.
Agro climatologists at the University of KwaZulu-Natal said they measured more than 500 lightning flashes within a 32km radius of Swayimane High School alone. A climatologist estimates that the wind speed may have measured up to 250km/h.
A delegation led by KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala, provincial MEC for Co-operative Governance Sipho Hlomuka and uMgungundlovu District Municipality Mayor Thobekile Maphumulo visited affected families on Wednesday.
Humanitarian organisations and community members, meanwhile, have come together to appeal for donations. Gift of the Givers deployed its teams on site and was putting together aid packages.
The delegations’ visits were fast and brief. Journalists from several media houses were following the delegation’s convoy, but by the time the reporters reached the first home where a person had been killed, the officials had handed over interim relief supplies to the family, passed their condolences and rushed off to the next family.
One resident, Bheki Mbeje, who survived the tornado after being caught in the middle of it, said he was walking home from work when he saw it twisting its way towards him.
“I could see my home but I couldn’t get there because everything was up in the air. Corrugated iron sheets and tree branches were flying up in the air. I had never seen anything like it.
“I decided to hide under a tree because I couldn’t run anywhere, it was too close for me to run. The tornado came closer and I felt things hitting me on my head and back and I fell onto the floor.
“I think I fainted because when I woke up everything had calmed down and it was drizzling. I had blood on my back. I looked towards home and there was nothing there, the whole house had collapsed,” said Mbeje, who sustained head and back injuries.
He said some of his family members were also injured but no one was killed. “The children had lumps and bruises on their heads but they’re fine. We’re all just happy to be alive; some people lost their lives.”
Recalling the tornado that cost her son his life in Mpolweni on Tuesday afternoon, Thunyeliwe Ndlovu, 63, said she had never thought she would live to see such a disaster.
Speaking to The Witness outside her demolished home, clutching her green ID book, her social pension card and some folded documents in her hands, Ndlovu said she had only previously seen tornados on television, and never thought that she would one day lose her child, Sphe Ndlovu, 40, to one.
“I was with Sphe and my granddaughter Zinhle in one of the rooms when the storm started. It got stronger so I went to fetch a jersey from my bedroom which is in another house. That’s when the storm got worse, so I decided to stay inside my bedroom. I heard Zinhle and Sphe screaming and then everything went quiet.”
Ndlovu said after the storm passed, she and Zinhle started screaming for help when they realised that a wall had fallen onto Sphe.
“The entire wall from one side of the house had fallen on top of him. I was panicking trying to move the bricks to help my son but they were too heavy for me. One of our neighbours had to use a five-pound hammer to break the bricks and we found Sphe lying there already dead. I can never get that image out of my head,” she said through tears.
Ndlovu, who had a small tuckshop business, said she was staying at a relative’s home close by. She said all her furniture, food and even her tuckshop stock were damaged when her house collapsed.
Nonhlanhla Buthelezi (45), from Thokozani in Cramond, across the main Greytown Road from Mpolweni, was crushed to death when a tree fell onto her house.
Her devastated daughter, Noluthando, 19, said her mother had instructed her and the three other younger children to run to the neighbour’s house for shelter during the tornado and promised that she would follow them. The house collapsed before she could leave.
“She was busy putting blankets where there were leaks. She had said she would follow us, but after a few minutes, I started getting worried. When I looked outside, the huge tree was lying flat on our house,” she said.
Noluthando said neighbours managed to remove the rubble and get her mother out.
“She was still alive when we got to her, so we placed her on a mattress while we waited for the ambulance. She died lying there before the ambulance came.”
She said her younger siblings, in Grade 1 and Grade 3, did not go to school on Wednesday because all their clothes and schoolbooks were lost in the rubble.
She said a government delegation visited her on Wednesday but despite her family having lost everything in the storm, they left her with nothing but a promise.
“I was hoping that they would at least leave us with food, but they said they didn’t have anything to help us and they left. They promised they would come back,” she said. Noluthando, her siblings, and her one-year-old baby were also taken in by relatives.
Danie Barnard, the manager of the Torwoodlea Estate, a vegetable farm near Mpolweni, described the horror of taking shelter inside a room with his two young children while the vicious storm ravaged the farm.
Severe hail had also damaged much of the sugar cane and vegetable crops which are grown at the farm.
“At about 4pm I saw the tornado heading towards us. There was very little I could do. I grabbed my kids and took shelter in a room with no windows.
“We could hear the damage happening. We heard the roof being pulled off. There was a lot of lightning outside.”
Barnard said most of his farm was damaged. He said he was devastated by the incident. “At first I didn’t believe my eyes when I saw the tornado. I have never experienced anything like that. I just ran for my loved ones. In that moment you don’t care about material things.
“We were in that room for not very long, but it felt like an eternity.”
He said assessors were looking at the damage yesterday and expected the cost to be huge.
The storm left the farm without electricity and, therefore, also without water pumps.
uMgungundlovu District Municipality Mayor Thobekile Maphumulo said about 200 homes were destroyed by the tornado and about 18 people with moderate to severe injuries were at hospitals.
She said she would be working with uMshwathi Mayor Mandla Zondi, and all other government departments and local businesses to help the affected families rebuild their homes.
Francois Engelbrecht, a professor of climatology at the University of Witwatersrand, said tornadoes were not unheard of in SA, especially over KwaZulu-Natal.
He said there would need to be an analysis to determine the strength of this one, but suspected it could have been an F3 tornado, which could mean wind speeds as high as 250km/h.
Engelbrecht explained that the tornado probably occurred because of a mixture of air masses, where air in the low atmosphere was moist and humid, whereas the high atmosphere was cooler and drier.
The second ingredient was a clashing of wind directions, which saw wind on the Earth’s surface moving easterly, but wind about 3km above sea level was moving almost in the opposite direction.
“Another thing was that a big weather system called the cut-off low-pressure system was moving from west to east, south of South Africa,” he said, adding that a similar system was near the country when there was extreme flooding in KwaZulu-Natal in April.
Engelbrecht said this should cause concern because it was evidence that the province was vulnerable to intense weather, adding that infrastructure is not strong enough to deal with heavy weather. DM
*Additional reporting by Niyanta Singh and News24.