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Historic Tropical Cyclone Kenneth crashes ashore in northern Mozambique, where devastating flooding is feared

It follows Cyclone Idai, the country’s deadliest known storm. There is no record of two storms so strong striking Mozambique in the same season.

Cyclone Kenneth on final approach to Mozambique. (NASA Worldview)
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After exploding in intensity to the equivalent of a high-end Category 4 hurricane, Tropical Cyclone Kenneth was crashing ashore in northern Mozambique on Thursday, six weeks after the country was devastated by its deadliest storm on record, Cyclone Idai. The country is still recovering from that trauma.

While weakening in the moments before landfall, Kenneth possibly struck with destructive winds of least 125 mph and a towering storm surge of 10 feet. In the coming days, devastating inland flooding is expected as the ferocious storm slows and unloads as much as 40 inches of rain.

Mozambique has never been struck by back-to-back cyclones this strong in the same season. And Kenneth probably became the strongest storm on record to make landfall this far north in Mozambique.

While storms in the southern Indian Ocean such as Idai and Kenneth are called tropical cyclones, they are no different from hurricanes that hit the United States. These two storms were probably the equivalent of Category 3 or “major” hurricanes at landfall.

Before slamming into Mozambique’s mainland, Kenneth swiped the Comoros Islands to the east, becoming the strongest storm on record to affect that area. Early reports say damage is significant, and the death toll is at three and expected to rise.

In a trademark of a warming world, Kenneth’s rate of intensification was unusually swift.

Kenneth was an 85-mph Category 1 early Wednesday but catapulted to a 140-mph Category 4 by the same time Thursday.

Sitting over unusually warm water in the southwestern Indian Ocean, Kenneth briefly acquired a “pinhole eye” characteristic of the most intense tropical weather systems, including notorious hurricanes Wilma and Maria.

The storm was expected to unleash extreme wind damage near where it made landfall.

The region of landfall is somewhat sparsely populated, but there are scattered towns up and down the coastal zone. Pemba, home to about 200,000, sits about 60 miles south of where Kenneth was anticipated to come ashore.

In addition to the wind, coastal storm surge as high as 10 feet or more above normally dry land was anticipated near and to the south of the landfall point. Several coves and river deltas in the region were likely to experience extreme inundation.

Additionally, maximum ocean waves of 40 feet were highlighted by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in its last advisory before landfall.

As with many tropical cyclones, the wind and coastal impact is only the beginning of an extended assault. One of Kenneth’s main legacies may end up being its copious rainfall. Thanks to a weak steering flow aloft, the storm is likely to come to a halt in the days ahead while continuing to wrap moisture inland off the ocean.

The result is likely to be catastrophic rain and flooding, for parts of northeast Mozambique, in particular.

With the remains of Kenneth sitting and wandering through the weekend, weather models are spitting out a widespread area of 20 inches or more of rain across that area. Flooding rains seem likely to extend into southern Tanzania, as well, although the heaviest appears to focus south of the border.

Some rainfall totals in the region may approach or surpass 40 inches, if computer outlooks are to be believed.

"At least 700,000 people are at risk within the region of Cabo Delgado if this storm makes landfall as forecasted,” Marc Nosbach, Mozambique’s country director for CARE, an international humanitarian agency, said earlier Thursday.

“Aside from storm damage, the greatest risk will immediately be from flooding due to heavy rains,” he said. “Rivers within this region of Mozambique may flood, especially as at least one of the dams is already close to full capacity, preventing floodwater from being retained. This will make it almost impossible to distribute aid, as roads will become impassable.”

Kenneth comes late in a hyperactive tropical season for the south Indian Ocean. Just six weeks ago, Cyclone Idai resulted in more than 1,000 deaths while cementing its place as the most significant tropical cyclone on record in the region. While Idai struck southern parts of the country, the north dealt with flooding from that storm, as well. Some of those same places will be inundated in the days to come.