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WEATHER WARNING

Fatalities rise as hail, flooding, snow, two tornadoes, heavy rainfall and high winds hit SA

Fatalities rise as hail, flooding, snow, two tornadoes, heavy rainfall and high winds hit SA
Gift of the Givers is providing humanitarian aid to Tongaat, KwaZulu-Natal residents affected by what was described as winds resembling a tornado on Monday, 4 June 2024. (Photo: Supplied)

In the past 24 hours, South Africa has witnessed at least two tornadoes north of Durban, hail in Umhlanga, snow in the Northern Cape and heavy rains and strong winds in the Western and Eastern Cape. So far, seven people have lost their lives in Eastern Cape and at least five people were confirmed killed in KwaZulu-Natal on Monday.

Winter is setting in as severe weather batters parts of the country. More cold, wet and windy conditions are expected throughout this week, with snow falling in some areas. 

Downed trees and destroyed homes were reported in the Tongaat area north of Durban on Monday afternoon after tornadoes tore through the area. 

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The aftermath in Tongaat, KwaZulu-Natal, where residents were affected by what was described as winds resembling a tornado on Monday, 4 June 2024. (Photo: Supplied)

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Gift of the Givers is providing humanitarian aid to Tongaat residents. (Photo: Supplied)

So far five people have lost their lives in the eThekwini Metro, which has been hardest hit and dozens of people are being treated for injuries in health care facilities.

On Tuesday, Disaster response teams were assessing the extent of the damages while providing immediate relief including accommodating displaced residents in government buildings. Tongaat, in the north of Durban recorded the most incidents, with several homes severely damaged, roofs blown off, and trees falling on electricity lines causing power outages.

Meanwhile, snow has been reported in the Karoo Hoogland Municipality in the Northern Cape, the first snow of the season according to the South African Weather Service (SAWS). 

As a cut-off low moves over the country from the east to the west, the Eastern Cape has been hit by flooding. Heavy rains, cold temperatures and rough winds are affecting parts of the Western Cape.

On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa conveyed condolences to families in the Eastern Cape who had lost loved ones to floods in Nelson Mandela Bay, Buffalo City, Kariega and other parts of the province. At least seven people lost their lives while more than 1,000 people were displaced as the floods ravaged roads and homes.

In a statement, Ramaphosa urged people to keep safe by heeding weather alerts and exercising greater care and restraint on the roads in poor weather conditions.

Harsh weather is expected to continue in the Eastern Cape as SAWS issued an Orange Level 6 warning for disruptive snow expected on Tuesday.

Stefaan Conradie, a climatology expert at UCT’s Climate System Analysis Group, added that SAWS’ monthly data showed that some places in the Eastern Cape, including Willowmore, had seen their wettest June day on record. 

“Record warm June night-time temperatures were also recorded in the east before the storm moved in, which are now being replaced by icy cold day temperatures,” Conradie said.

In KZN, damaging winds resembling a tornado were also experienced north of Durban in January last year, which the SAWS concluded to be a “landspout”. In August 2023 another landspout, in Hanover Park, Cape Town, blew roofs off homes.

Gift of the Givers said more than 1,200 people had been displaced in Tongaat after several properties were destroyed due to the high winds. Power and cellphone towers had been damaged while many roads in the area were inaccessible. The relief organisation was distributing humanitarian aid to Tongaat residents who had moved to shelters on Monday.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Freak Cape ‘landspout’ blows roofs off and creates domestic havoc

Read more in Daily Maverick: What we know about the ‘landspout’ that tore through parts of KwaZulu-Natal

Weather warning

SAWS issued several warnings for disruptive rain and damaging winds in Cape Town, Bergrivier, Cederberg, Drakenstein, Overstrand, Saldanha Bay, Stellenbosch, Swartland, Theewaterskloof and Cape Agulhas.

SAWS said that throughout Tuesday, the cut-off low was expected to bring significant rainfall over the southern parts of the West Coast, western parts of the Cape Winelands, Cape Town and western parts of the Overberg, with accumulations of 20-30mm in some areas and up to 50-70mm in isolated areas.

Cut-off low-pressure systems in winter are commonly associated with widespread rainfall, snowfall, strong to gale-force winds and rough sea conditions. 

The City of Cape Town’s disaster risk management spokesperson Sonica Lategan said all relevant departments would be on standby after SAWS issued Yellow Level 4 weather warnings on Monday.

Residents should also be on the alert after a Yellow Level 2 warning was issued for damaging winds that could affect watercraft between Cape Agulhas and Plettenberg Bay on Tuesday.

Lategan asked residents to clear out their drainage systems, raise floor levels of a structure higher than ground level; raise furniture on bricks to limit water damage; make sandbags; dig trenches around houses to divert water flows; report blocked drains; waterproof roofs; clear gutters and remove dead tree branches.

“For emergencies, residents can dial 107 from a landline or 021 480 7700 from a cellphone,” Lategan said.

SAWS also cautioned residents to be careful on roads and avoid crossing rivers and swollen streams where water is above their ankles. 

“If trapped in a vehicle during a flood, abandon it and climb to higher ground. In buildings, move valuables to a safe place above the expected flood level. Switch off electricity at the supply point to the building. Be especially cautious at night when it’s harder to recognise flood dangers,” SAWS stated.

Unpredictable cut-off low systems

Phistos Mathebula, a forecaster at the Cape Town Weather Office, told Daily Maverick that cut-off low systems were harder to predict than cold fronts, and that this system was strengthening and weakening unpredictably so it was hard to tell which areas would be hit hardest.

“On Sunday we issued some yellow-level warnings for severe thunderstorms, but they didn’t materialise, and we had to issue warnings for disruptive rainfall for Monday. We are taking it day by day because this system is not performing like other systems. Cold fronts are more predictable.

“In the evening on Tuesday, that cutoff-low is expected to be over the southern parts of the country, but there is also another cutoff-low developing over the west of the country by Tuesday evening. This will intensify on Wednesday,” Mathebula said.

He said this cut-off low should weaken by Thursday and by Friday it should have moved to the far eastern parts of the country.

Conradie said that the Garden Route and Little Karoo were probably at the highest risk, but that the western mountains from the Western Cape to the Northern Cape could also be affected.

“There’s a real risk over the next few days. But the various forecasts differ substantially, so it’s hard to say with any confidence where the highest risk is,” Conradie said.

Tornadoes confirmed

Kevin Rae, chief forecaster for disaster risk reduction at the SAWS, said in a statement about the sudden spell of extreme weather which began developing across South Africa over the weekend:

“On Friday, SASW issued an urgent media release ahead of the expected development of an upper air cut-off low system. This system was expected to develop a range of severe weather including severe storms, heavy rain and flooding, heavy snowfall, as well as very rough seas around our southern ocean and coastal areas.

“Regretfully, heavy rain and flooding occurred on Saturday night over parts of the Eastern Cape, including Uitenhage, Gqeberha and East London, leading to at least seven fatalities.”

On Friday afternoon there were at least two tornadoes in KwaZulu-Natal, affecting Newcastle, Utrecht, Ballito and Tongaat, he said.

“On behalf of SAWS, we express our deep condolences to those who have lost loved ones as well as those who have suffered material loss during the recent severe weather event,” Rae added.

While the cut-off low system will be moving away from the country on Monday night and Tuesday, Rae said there is still a risk for isolated communities in high-altitude areas of the Eastern Cape, such as Elliot and Barkly East where heavy snowfall is expected from Monday night. DM

This article was updated at 10am on 4 June 2024.

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