By Golden Matonga and Lynsey Chutel
As a surge of water came roaring down a hill in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre, on Sunday, a 15-year-old girl said she saw it coming from the veranda of her home, grabbed her four younger siblings and ran.
“It was terrifying,” said the girl, Alinafe Petrol, speaking on an aid worker’s phone. “We started running for our lives, but only realized later my mother was not with us. I have not heard from her since.”
Cyclone Freddy, a record-breaking storm that barreled into the landlocked southeast African nation of Malawi over the weekend, brought a deluge of mud and floodwaters that has left nearly 200 people dead.
In a shelter in Blantyre on Tuesday, Alinafe, her youngest sibling strapped to her back, was among dozens of Malawians anxiously awaiting news of their missing loved ones.
In Blantyre, the city hit hardest by the cyclone, authorities said 158 people were killed as houses slid from their foundations and winds ripped trees out of the ground. Several electric poles were strewn across the city’s main freeway.
The cyclone, which as of Tuesday had been going for 36 days straight, set the record for the longest-lasting storm in the Southern Hemisphere. Officials said they believed that the storm, now weakened, would dissipate by Wednesday.
The storm formed in February off the northern coast of Australia and cut an unusual path by traveling 4,000 miles across the southern Indian Ocean before it hit southeastern Africa.
The cyclone swirled in the Indian Ocean, ricocheting between the island nation of Madagascar and the southeastern coast, where it hit Mozambique. The cyclone made landfall twice in each of those countries, killing nearly 50 people.
As the storm traveled inland, it battered Malawi. The country’s death toll is expected to climb as rescue workers continued digging through sludge and rubble Tuesday, drenched by a third day of continuous rain.
Civilians joined in digging through the rubble with farm tools, aid workers said in phone interviews. They struggled to pull young children and older people from the wreckage. Some bodies were washed away down river, while others were pulled from the city’s sewer system.
With more than 20,000 people displaced by the destruction, the survivors huddled in hurriedly built camps in schoolyards and classrooms.
As a landslide rumbled toward his home at the foot of Soche, a hill in Blantyre, Patrick Melemba, 40, said he left everything behind and ran.
“I saw people being covered by mud, so many dead bodies,” he said.
His home was destroyed, but all six family members survived.
“I have lost everything,” Melemba said, but then added, “I feel lucky at the same time that I am alive.”
At Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, desperate crowds overwhelmed medical staff, said Felix Washon, a spokesperson for the Red Cross in Malawi. Some carried the bodies of relatives crushed by fallen walls. Others searched for missing family members, hoping to find them alive. Dozens more arrived with injuries, some walking, while others had to be carried.
“It was an overwhelming situation,” said Washon. “People were rushing there with dead bodies.”
The water has cut new streams through the city, rushing downhill where more neighborhoods are likely to be flooded, said Washon. Such conditions hampered rescue efforts.
A boat from the Malawi Defense Force carrying six people capsized in a swollen river. Four of them survived, but two passengers — both soldiers — are still missing, said Maj. Emmanuel Mlelembela, spokesperson for the Malawi Defense Force.
Officials fear that the devastation may be worse in rural villages still cut off by washed-away roads or fallen trees.
As officials assessed the scale of the devastation, Malawi’s government declared a state of disaster across 10 districts in the country’s south on Monday.
Cyclone Freddy is the worst natural disaster the country has seen since 1991, when floods killed about 1,000 people, according to Douglas Moffat, commissioner for the Phalombe District, just outside Blantyre.
Malawi was already struggling to contain a cholera outbreak that had surprised health workers because it reemerged after the country had all but eradicated the disease. In the past year, more than 1,600 people have died from cholera.
At least 500 more cases and 13 deaths from cholera have been recorded since the storm, the World Health Organization said. Floodwaters may spread the disease wider, while hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed or destroyed.
“Right now, it’s too early to know how exactly the cyclone will impact cholera transmission and associated deaths,” said Dr. Patrick Otim, who is managing the World Health Organization’s response to the cholera outbreak in the region. “But we are seeing concerning developments.”
In neighboring Mozambique, where Cyclone Freddy made its second landfall last Saturday, about 55,500 people were at risk as heavy rain continued to fall, the United Nations said. Some areas, including the central province of Sofala, were flooded by the cyclone’s first arrival on Feb. 24.