BEIRA, Mozambique — Rain and widespread devastation hampered rescue operations Thursday as underequipped aid agencies struggled to cope with the extensive damage inflicted on central Mozambique by Cyclone Idai, which has killed at least 500 people here and in Zimbabwe and Malawi.
Satellite images from the European Space Agency still show a vast inland sea of more than 1,000 square miles stretching away from the port town of Beira, where the cyclone landed Friday. The storm shattered this town of a half-million people, who already suffered from poor infrastructure.
“It’s quite tragic what we’re seeing,” said Hugo Du Plessis, an aviation operations official for the World Food Program. “My pilots are telling me that people are still up in trees, but so are snakes. Imagine, having to choose between a snake and drowning.”
Though the waters are slowly receding, they are waist-level in many areas, and tens of thousands of people are still stranded, with aid agencies estimating that 400,000 people have lost their homes and will need to be housed in emergency shelters.
Land and Environment Minister Celso Correia told journalists Thursday that the death toll in Mozambique was 242, while 15,000 people still needed to be rescued. So far, 3,000 have been saved. Zimbabwe’s defense minister said Thursday that the death toll in his country was 259. An additional 56 are believed to have died in neighboring Malawi.
There are fears that the toll could soar into the thousands once some of the more-remote affected areas are reached.
“Our biggest fight is against the clock,” Correia told a news conference, adding that rescuers are working 24 hours a day. “The situation is still critical.”
The plan is ultimately to create vast camps to house the displaced, but the immediate goal, six days after the cyclone hit, was simply to rescue people and feed them.
“The grand plan is to set up two mega camps,” said Gerald Bourke, a spokesman for WFP. “The question is how to get people there. There’s talk of using a combination of boats and helicopters.”
For now, the aid agencies and local authorities struggling to help people are woefully underequipped, with just two U.N. helicopters that arrived from Uganda and South Africa and one cargo aircraft. There is also an urgent need for flat-bottomed boats to venture out into the flooded areas to find people.
Choppy seas and washed-out roads have made getting the necessary equipment to Beira difficult.
Most of the rescues have been carried out by the overburdened helicopters, which can take up to 30 people at a time.
The Indian navy was the first to provide major sea power to the rescue effort, diverting three ships from a mission in Mauritius.
A navy official, P.S. Sugesh, said that personnel began by training local commercial fishermen in rescue techniques, and that the naval operation and the locals’ effort had rescued about 300 people each. Still, the going has been tough, and constant rain and the full moon have made Beira’s drastic tides even more unpredictable.
“In the first few days, we saw many dead bodies in the water,” said Sugesh. “It is hard to say how many, but the numbers will go up. The bodies are all in the sea, so it will take weeks or even years to know the real number.”
On a flight operated by Mission Aviation Fellowship delivering tents and sanitation kits to Beira on behalf of Save the Children, the extent of the damage came into stark relief.
Vast stretches of farmland were inundated. The region’s mango trees, apparently weaker than its palms, were uprooted as if a comb had run through them, plucking them out of the ground. Roads gave way to gushing, muddy water, and the debris of thousands of tin roofs was everywhere.
The area’s endless cornfields were flattened, ruined right on the verge of harvest. The annihilation of the crop by the floods ensures a prolonged humanitarian crisis here.
Dave Holmes, the flight’s pilot, once surveyed floods for the U.S. Geological Survey, including the epic ones that followed Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina in 1999. “That was nothing compared to this,” he said, banking his Cessna left. “Flying over this is intimidating. This feels like flying out into the sea.”
While the port of Beira itself has reopened, allowing in much-needed supplies such as fuel, signs of the damage to the city are everywhere. Metal sheeting from roofs lies in piles, and trees have been robbed of their leaves and branches. The aid agency Oxfam said 90 percent of the city was underwater.
“Food prices are skyrocketing,” Rotafina Donco, Oxfam country director for Mozambique, said in a statement. Some people in transit camps have not eaten for days, she added.
There were some positive developments Thursday. The first regular container ship left Beira’s port, and Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Mozambique visited the port as a measure of confidence in his country’s ability to continue to rely on it for precious fuel imports.
Electricity, running water and cellphone reception returned to parts of the city, and cleanup crews made progress clearing roads within Beira.