BY XOLISANI NCUBE/VENERANDA LANGA
AT least 300 more people are feared dead in Chimanimani and Chipinge due to the devastating effects of Cyclone Idai that swept through the country over the weekend, leaving thousands homeless and property damaged.
This came amid reports that most Cabinet ministers had been commandeered to join President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is already in Manicaland province to assess damage caused by the deadly cyclone.
“All ministers who were selected to be in the Cabinet taskforce on disaster management are going to Manicaland and many others are also going, although a few will remain behind. We are going. Many of us are going to Mutare. Some are already in Mutare, but some will be following in the morning,” Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi said last night.
Briefing journalists at a post-Cabinet meeting in Harare yesterday, Local Government minister July Moyo said although the confirmed death toll still stood at 98, information from villagers in some parts of Rusitu in Chimanimani indicated that at least 300 bodies were seen being swept into Mozambique.
He said government had resolved to send the army to retrieve them.
“We understand there are bodies which are floating. Some are floating all the way into Mozambique, as you know Rusitu is near Mozambique and we hear that the residents of Mozambique have been calling some of our people saying we have seen bodies here,” Moyo said.
“We believe those bodies are coming from Zimbabwe. The total number, we were told they could be 100, some are saying they could be 300.”
Chimanimani district and some parts of Chipinge, which are near the border with Mozambique, bore the brunt of Cyclone Idai and have been cut off from the rest of the country, as rescue teams still battle to reach marooned people after roads and bridges were washed away.
The Local Government minister said due to the poor state of the roads, soldiers were now conducting rescue operations on foot.
“The number of casualties has been a very fast moving figure. And I can tell you why. Most of the casualties come from either collapsed buildings or the mudslides and people are buried under the mud and villagers are excavating their loved ones using shovels and things like that,” he said.
“Now this 98, I am sure again is the last that we have. Let me combine with the issue of 300, that number is not a confirmed number. Yes, the people in the area, the people in the Kopa area that I talk about, Rusitu area, they are the ones who started calling saying we have bodies here.
“At first, they said we have 100. Then they said we hear from Mozambique that there are Zimbabwean bodies that are floating there. But until the army and the relief agencies go to that area to start counting and burying the people, the figure will continue changing.”
Government has been accused of failing to prevent the high number of casualties, with some saying it was known beforehand that a cyclone was heading towards Zimbabwe and authorities ought to have evacuated those who were in low-lying areas.
Moyo said government could not have forced people to leave their homes for safety, but admitted that more could have been done to save the communities.
“I can tell you that all of us are perplexed that with the whole information that went out before this cyclone, why do we have so many casualties?” he said.
‘Is it a failure by government to inform or is it a failure by communities or is it a failure by the people to believe in what is being said? I think the President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) said last night (Monday) these are lessons that we must learn. Cyclones have occurred before and people have died. A few weeks before this cyclone occurred, we already knew that the intensity was going to affect those areas.”
Moyo also blamed a recent earthquake in December last year, saying it compounded the situation since the ground was already weak before the cyclone hit.
The 5,5 magnitude earthquake’s epicentre was 53km from Chipinge on the border with Mozambique.
Earlier, Moyo had told Parliament that Chimanimani urban, Ngangu and Kopa near Rusitu along the Mozambican border, as well as Chikukwa were the worst affected, adding that Buhera, Bikita, Masvingo, Zaka and Gutu also bore the brunt of the cyclone.
In a ministerial statement on Cyclone Idai, Moyo said most bridges through Ngangu, Chikukwa to Rusitu had been washed away.
He said the only way to navigate through was Wengezi Road through Tanganda and Birchenough Bridge Road to Mutengeni, Chipinge and then to Chimanimani.
He said after Skyline, army officers had to walk to Ngandu, Chimanimani, where they buried 45 bodies.
“At Kopa, 147 people were missing and now we hear some of the dead bodies are floating in the rivers, and even villagers in Mozambique are calling saying more bodies are floating to their side. Rusitu has become a big pool,” he said.
“At St Charles Lwanga Secondary School, when children were eating, a mudslide came and 50 of them were trapped in the dining hall for two days. Two of them and a worker died and we could not rescue them. At Chipinge 175 children were rescued at schools by the army.”
Moyo said three Air Force of Zimbabwe helicopters had been dispatched, including a Mars helicopter hired by the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company to rescue its workers, but is now rescuing villagers.
He said food handouts had been moved to Chipinge and Skyline, adding that the army would carry some food to affected areas on foot.
Moyo revealed that Finance minister Mthuli Ncube had released $50 million, with more than $30 million to go towards repair of bridges and the rest to Health, Energy and Local Government ministries.
“We are giving warning to the people in Mutoko, Chikomba and Mvuma right now because the epicentre of the cyclone is moving to Malawi and we think those people will be affected,” he said.
Asked why government had only released three helicopters and had not deployed police officers and why villagers and schoolchildren in low-lying areas had not been evacuated before the storm hit, Moyo admitted that government should have ordered schools in Chimanimani to close before Cyclone Idai hit.
“If we had closed schools, we would have saved lives,” he said.
Moyo also claimed that the affected St Charles Lwanga students had received counselling services, adding that the police were also on the ground.
Binga North MP Prince Dubeko Sibanda (MDC Alliance) said: “For the past two weeks, there was warning that there will be a cyclone and Moyo has failed to indicate government and his ministry’s efforts to mitigate the disaster, and does the minister still have the conscience to remain a Cabinet minister as he has dismally disappointed the people of Chimanimani?”