BUZI, Mozambique — In the week since Cyclone Idai triggered unprecedented flooding in central Mozambique, there have been speculative death tolls in the thousands, but barely any bodies recovered.
The United Nations elevated its emergency level here to be on par with Yemen and the Central African Republic, both in grinding and brutal civil wars. Key relief teams have just begun to mobilize.
Confusion, anger and grief have inundated this low-lying region in central Mozambique — hit by three weeks of unending downpours — about 600 miles northeast of Johannesburg.
On Saturday, the Mozambican government said the official death toll from flooding here stood at 417, but President Filipe Nyusi speculated last week that more than 1,000 had probably died. Some here fear the number of dead might ultimately be far higher.
A worrying picture is emerging in which thousands perished between Idai’s landfall Friday and the height of the floods Sunday, before aid agencies had started responding or flown over the area to assess the damage.
The cyclone also set off landslides that killed hundreds in the hilly areas of neighboring Zimbabwe and Malawi. But all that water eventually drained into Mozambique’s coastal plain, where it rose and rose, chasing people up onto roofs and into trees until they could climb no farther.
Many were probably swept away, while others died of exhaustion while stranded. Constant rain has complicated rescue missions, prevented accurate satellite imaging, and kept everyone, from high-level officials to survivors in villages, in an information vacuum.
“It will be heartbreaking once we know the full extent,” said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, who is directing the United Nations’ response, as he has for other massive tropical storms such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2016 in the Philippines, which killed more than 10,000 per his estimate. “Most of the bodies were likely swept out to sea and may or may not ever wash ashore.”
On Friday, as the floods receded, a six-boat Indian navy rescue squad was diverted from open-ocean training exercises into a full-fledged emergency lifesaving mission along the muddy Buzi River, which burst its banks.
Boats can rescue far more people than helicopters, but both are in short supply. The Mozambican government’s response has been hampered by a lack of equipment, and the rain has washed away all the roads leading to the Buzi River, preventing aid organizations from transporting flat-bottomed boats to the affected area.
Boat rescues have been left to the Indians — who are mostly trainees in their early 20s — and local fishermen.
In a Red Cross news release on Friday, the organization said that the town of Buzi, along the river of the same name, “had reportedly disappeared, with the water as high as the palm trees.” When we reached Buzi, however, the river was back within its banks, and the surrounding fields were draining rapidly.
Instead of finding people to rescue, confused and angry crowds confronted the young Indian navy recruits, questioning why they hadn’t brought food or water on the boats. The Indians didn’t speak Portuguese, and the locals didn’t speak English.
“We don’t want to go to Beira!” shouted a young man named Graciel Chongo, referring to the large port city, two hours by boat from Buzi, where aid agencies are headquartered. “We have no one there, and you will make us homeless. We don’t want to leave our land.”
Only one out of the six Indian boats returned to Beira with people who wanted to leave Buzi. It left as the crowd of people on the shore grew, expecting aid to be delivered.
At another point along the river, where the bloated corpses of two cows floated right down the middle, the shouts of a group of 10 people waving their arms on the bank were barely audible over the roar of the boats. A bit shaken by the experience in Buzi, the Indians decided to rescue them only after being implored by a reporter.
While aid agencies have said what happened in Buzi was “apocalyptic,” people there said only 15 people in the large town were unaccounted for. Aid officials conceded that they were just now reaching areas like Buzi and redrawing their plans.
“For the first few days after the cyclone, we were in a black hole, and it isn’t much better now for information,” said Deborah Nguyen, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program. “First, we had planned for two mega camps for 400,000 people. Now we are thinking about localized aid distribution points. Our plans are changing daily.”
In Beira, home to half a million people, people were quickly rebuilding. The trees, sand and tin roofing that littered the streets after the worst of the storm has been recycled into cooking fuel and building material. But most people still don’t have electricity or running water.
In Beira’s heyday as a tourist destination for South Africans, it was home to sprawling resorts. Its downtown is still packed with exquisite Portuguese-style architecture, dating back to colonial days. But over years of decline, much of the city had fallen into disrepair, and its grandest hotel had been taken over by squatters.
Now much of the city resembles a squatter’s camp. The Red Cross reported the first cases of cholera in the city on Saturday.
“If the rain ever stops, we will find out what has happened to our city, to our country,” said Sergio Sambo, a rickshaw driver who now sleeps in the three-wheeler’s back seat. “We pray, pray, pray to God that this rain stops.”