DURBAN, South Africa — Grief-stricken South Africans are still searching for family members swept away by last week’s floods in which 435 people died and more than 40,000 were made homeless in the coastal city of Durban and the surrounding KwaZulu-Natal province.
The South African army has deployed 10,000 troops to help find those missing, rebuild roads, bridges and utilities, and distribute emergency aid to families made destitute by the deluge. The government has allocated $67 million in relief aid for affected families.
Families grimly persist in searches to find the bodies of their loved ones.
Joseph Nkosi, 56, of Inanda township, spends his days with neighbors searching through a debris-laden river stream for the body of his 15-year-old daughter, Ntombenhle, last seen trying to cross a low-lying bridge when the waters carried her away.
“I am heartbroken,” Nkosi told The Associated Press. “What I am hoping for now is just to find her body. I have already accepted that she is no more. All I am holding on to is her school tie which we found in this river stream.”
In a nearby neighborhood, Apollo Mdladla, 47, said he and his young daughter are struggling to cope with the deaths of 10 members of a neighboring family. A mother, her children and grandchildren all died when the floods swept away their home.
“We still have trauma. Those children used to play with my own child. Now she asks, ‘Where is Manelisa? Where is Lulu?’ I had to be honest and tell her that they have died, because she can see that they are no longer here,” said Mdladla as rescue teams searched for bodies in the pile of flotsam in his backyard.
Five bodies of the family have been found, but the other five are still missing, he said.
The largest number of deaths and homes destroyed occurred in Durban’s low-lying poor neighborhoods, where families built homes on open, unsafe ground. But middle-class and affluent neighborhoods were also hit when mudslides crushed homes built on hillsides.
Schools, churches and community halls have become shelters for thousands of displaced families and most of those centers lack electricity or clean water.
“The city remains in crisis 10 days after the storm, and it is now primarily a crisis of water and sanitation provision — to hospitals, clinics and communities. Failure to get this right could spell a deepening health crisis, characterized by water-borne disease,” said Mani Thandrayen, medical team leader for Doctors Without Borders in Durban. The organization is supporting four shelters with food, water, cookware, blankets, mattresses and other basic items, he said.
Even many homes still standing must be evacuated because they are now unstable and may soon collapse, said South African National Defence Force spokesman Brigadier General Andries Mokoena Mahapa.
“What we have said from day one is that those people need to be moved out. We need to shelter them at a temporary shelter while we are trying to find alternative accommodation,” he said. “We cannot repair them because any moment from now, those houses will fall off,” said Mahapa.
Lack of maintenance of Durban’s drainage systems worsened the floods in Durban, according to Jeff Smithers, director of the Center for Water Resources Research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He’s called for an improvement in early warning systems to respond to such disasters.
“What has exacerbated the situation is the lack of maintenance,” which allowed drainage systems to become blocked by trash, he said. “But even in the perfect scenario we would have had some flooding.”
Still shaken by the floods, Sandile Cele, 23, surveyed the scene of wreckage from his family’s home on a small hill in Inanda. He used to look through a steel-framed window, but now an entire wall of the dining room is missing, torn away by the surging waters.
“My mother was trying to sweep away the water that had entered the house, but we soon heard part of the house collapsing and we ran to our neighbor’s house,” he said.
The family watched helplessly as the floods shattered windows, tore down walls and ripped off roofs from their two houses.
“We’ve lost so much. We had recently completed building the second house with the money that my mother received when my father passed away,” said Cele. “What we are desperate for is a home, a proper house where we can live and feel safe.”