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EXTREME WEATHER

Cyclone Freddy’s deadly trail of destruction a grim reminder of the need to prioritise climate adaptation

Cyclone Freddy’s deadly trail of destruction a grim reminder of the need to prioritise climate adaptation
Locals are evacuated from flooded areas in Maputo, Mozambique, 11 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Luis Fonseca)

Freddy, the longest-lived tropical cyclone on record, has left devastation in its wake in Malawi and Mozambique.

Tropical Cyclone Freddy has become the longest-lived tropical cyclone on record and the first tropical cyclone to hit both Mozambique and Madagascar twice.

“Initially, 14 people lost their lives in Madagascar and Mozambique. But after the second landfall, the loss of life was much greater,” SA Weather Service (SAWS) forecaster Wayne Venter told Daily Maverick, with the death toll on Tuesday surpassing 200.

cyclone freddy mozambique

A woman walks on a flooded street near Quelimane, as Cyclone Freddy hits in Quelimane, Mozambique, 11 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andre Catueira)

In an unprecedented turn of events, after making landfall in Madagascar on 21 February and Mozambique on 24 February, instead of continuing westwards as tropical cyclones typically do, Freddy returned to the Mozambique Channel, gathering energy from the ocean, and hitting Madagascar again before heading back to Mozambique.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Ready for Freddy? SA must prepare for more intense weather events” 

Freddy made its second landfall in Mozambique on 11 March, displacing 22,000 people (with 10 confirmed deaths by Tuesday) and then moved inland towards southern Malawi.

As the death toll in Malawi neared 100, President Lazarus Chakwera declared a State of Disaster in the southern region of the country on Monday.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs in Malawi reported the death toll had risen from 99 to 190, with 584 injured and 37 reported missing.

Francois Engelbrecht, a professor of climatology and the director of the Global Change Institute at Wits University, told Daily Maverick Freddy is the longest-lived tropical cyclone on record. The period from when it first attained tropical cyclone status to the last day that it had tropical cyclone status was 35 days, although at times it weakened into a tropical low.

SAWS forecaster Venter said the previous record was held by Hurricane John in 1994 — 31 days — but meteorologists were still awaiting confirmation of Freddy’s record from the World Meteorological Organization.

How climate change is influencing cyclones

Along with climate change making cyclones more intense — read this if you’re not convinced — Engelbrecht said that in a warmer world, it’s logical that tropical cyclones will last longer too. 

He explained that tropical cyclones need warm tropical water, with sea surface temperatures higher than 27°C to maintain their intensity. When a system is over colder water, or if it encounters unfavourable circulation in the atmosphere, it can lose its tropical cyclone status.

cyclone freddy mozambique

A damaged boat on the shore near Quelimane, as the storm Freddy hits Mozambique, 12 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andre Catueira)

“It is actually very logical that in a warmer world, where the tropical oceans are also getting warmer and where regions such as the Mozambique Channel are also getting warmer, we should expect that conditions are becoming generally more favourable to maintain tropical cyclones,” said Engelbrecht.

Along with lots of heat being exchanged between the ocean and the atmosphere, evaporation also occurs.

“The warmer the sea surface temperature is, the more evaporation takes place from the ocean into the atmosphere,” said Engelbrecht, explaining that rising air in a tropical cyclone leads to the condensation of water vapour.

That latent heat from the water vapour is released into the storm when the water vapour condensates to form clouds, providing additional energy. 

 An unprecedented disaster 

“This disaster is unprecedented,” said John Chipeta, senior advocacy, communications and campaigns manager for the international development and humanitarian aid organisation Save the Children in Malawi

Chipeta said the cyclone hadn’t just affected the hotspot areas for annual flooding, particularly low-lying areas, but had “affected even Blantyre city in the southern part of Malawi; normally [that area] doesn’t experience that level of destruction and disaster”.

On Monday, 13 March, the Malawian government reported that Blantyre city and district had more than 1,600 people displaced, 98 dead and 134 missing.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Detailed – SA Air Force chopper’s dramatic rescue of man from raging Mozambique river”

Chipeta said they had to evacuate people from mudslides where houses had been built in mountainous areas.

Engelbrecht said that some of the houses in Blantyre are built from mud, which caused the houses to collapse when hit with extreme rainfall — similar to what occurred with the fatal KZN mudslides last year.

“It’s a new phenomenon in this disaster,” said Chipeta. “We haven’t had this in a long time.”

Engelbrecht said that Freddy developed a “sequence that has never been before”.

cyclone freddy nasa

A handout satellite image made available by the Nasa Worldview application, part of the Nasa Earth Observing System Data and Information System, of cyclone Freddy over Mozambique on 12 March 2023 (issued 13 March 2023). (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nasa Worldview Handout)

He said that the cyclone making landfall in Madagascar, moving to the Mozambique Channel, and making landfall in Mozambique was not uncommon, but what was strange was that the cyclone moved back into the Mozambique Channel — usually, cyclones in the area keep going westwards and peter out.

Scientists are not sure why this happened, but Engelbrecht says Freddy was a very slow-moving cyclone and never completely lost touch with the ocean.

“So, over the warm waters it started to regenerate itself,” said Engelbrecht.

“Once again, the climate system has surprised us. The question we, as climatologists, need to pose is whether these higher sea surface temperatures in the southwest Indian Ocean, including in the Mozambique Channel, are now enabling generally longer lifetime for tropical cyclones.”

Mozambique

Freddy first made landfall in Mozambique in the province of Inhambane on 24 February, and by 1 March, the Mozambican government reported that Freddy had affected 163,898 people (34,525 families), the majority in Inhambane province, Maputo, Sofala and Gaza.

cyclone freddy quelimane

People protect themselves from the rain in a flooded street after the destruction caused by the storm Freddy in Quelimane, Mozambique, 13 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andre Catueira)

The Belgian Red Cross operating out of Mozambique reported that due to the compounded effects of flooding that had started earlier in the rainy season and Freddy, “Significant damage to infrastructure was caused: more than 239,000 individuals are affected in southern and central Mozambique; more than 22,000 houses were damaged.

“Damage to agricultural land is also of great concern, as 92,000 hectares of crops have been affected, including in areas where 400,000 people are already food insecure.”

On Tuesday in Zambezia province, almost 2,000 houses and 14 health centres had been damaged or destroyed, with more than 22,000 people displaced. Ten people were confirmed to have lost their lives, with 14 injured.

Malawi 

A total of 13,099 households (about 59,000 people) have been affected, out of which 4,305 (approximately 19,000 people) have been displaced, with 57 camps set up to accommodate the displaced.

The Department of Disaster Management Affairs said: “The department, humanitarian partners and councils continue to facilitate the provision of relief assistance to affected and displaced households, with search and rescue operations led by the Malawi Defence Force, the Malawi Police Service, the Malawi Red Cross Society and communities under way.”

“The rescue part has been very challenging… because the roads are cut off and bridges are washed away,” said Chipeta. 

Heta said Save the Children had been working to mobilise food resources and social support, as some children had lost their parents, or their parents were missing.

Because the minister of education has closed schools until 20 March, the organisation will assist with learning when children are evacuated to relief camps.

Malawi’s Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services said on Tuesday that while the cyclone was weakening, it would continue to cause torrential rains associated with windy conditions in most parts of southern Malawi, and the threat of heavy flooding and damaging winds remained very high.

What does this mean for South Africa?

“Fortunately for South Africa, Freddy is not expected to influence us directly,” said Venter.

“Freddy is currently at low pressure, sitting at 1,007hPa over central Mozambique on 14 March. This system is expected to linger around Mozambique over the next day or two. After that, it’s expected to move back into the channel.

“This time around, it doesn’t seem to intensify again and it may be the end of Freddy.

“According to the latest La Reunion Tropical Cyclone forecast, no cyclone genesis is expected over the Mozambique Channel over the next five days, which corresponds to most model predictions. The shearing environment becomes unfavourable for any further intensification on Thursday and Friday. Drier air is also expected to invade the Mozambique Channel,” said Venter.

cyclone freddy mozambique

A man collects wood on a flooded street near Quelimane, as the storm Freddy hits Mozambique, 12 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andre Catueira)

“However, this area will continue to be monitored for any further intensification. At this stage, later this week might finally see the end of Freddy.”

While it’s unlikely Freddy will hit South Africa, Engelbrecht said it was important to take note of the devastation in Mozambique and Malawi. 

“It’s still to me as if people don’t fully appreciate how life-threatening a cyclone is if you live in an informal house,” said Engelbrecht. When a tropical cyclone makes landfall it can have winds blowing at 200km/h, which an informal structure cannot survive.

How we prepare

As with the KZN floods, there were adequate warnings that Cyclone Freddy was approaching Malawi and Mozambique.

The problem is that people have so few options; even if the early warming reaches them in time, they have very few means to respond,” said Engelbrecht.

He said a short-term response was needed, which requires building the trust of communities and providing a path out of destruction.

“But then you must offer them something safe, where at least you can offer people water and security. And you must have trust because, you know, they will often have to face up to the fact that they are going to lose all of their belongings.”

Engelbrecht said if early-warning systems are actioned, thousands of lives can be saved.

The long-term response is climate adaptation.

Giving people a better life on safer land requires investment.

Engelbrecht asked: “Why are people still living along the steep slopes where the mudslides occur? In informal housing? They are extremely vulnerable.

“I think already with the current funding streams, there’s much more that can be done,” said Engelbrecht, adding that southern African governments should make climate adaptation a priority. 

“If we are not going to change the safety of our most vulnerable communities — if people continue to live right on the riverbanks and along the steep slopes where the mudslides occur — the hard reality is that hundreds of thousands more people are going to die in the next 10 years, from events exactly like this one.” DM/OBP

 

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