Cyclone Batsirai Leaves Devastation and Death in Madagascar

Cyclone Batsirai Leaves Devastation and Death in Madagascar

JOHANNESBURG — Aid groups in Madagascar were surveying widespread damage on Tuesday from the second devastating storm to batter the island nation in less than a month, Cyclone Batsirai, which has left more than 20 people dead and tens of thousands without homes.

The storm slammed into the island’s southeast on Friday, battering coastal towns and villages before moving across inland areas and flooding crops. It spun off the island from the west coast on Monday, causing flash floods in a desert area, aid groups said.

Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said more than 60,000 people have been displaced across Madagascar, which is off the southeastern coast of continental Africa. Another aid group, Catholic Relief Services, said that number could rise as reports come in from around the country.

In the last decade, as climate patterns in the southern Indian Ocean have changed, areas of Madagascar unaccustomed to storms have been caught unprepared. The storms and resulting floods have also become more intense, and deforestation has made the island’s hinterland more vulnerable, aid agencies said.

The new storm formed in the Indian Ocean just three weeks after Tropical Storm Ana left more than 70 people dead as it passed over Madagascar and the continental nations of Malawi and Mozambique. Madagascar suffered the highest number of fatalities, 55.

In the city of Mananjary, on Madagascar’s east coast, residents sheltered in their homes as the storm made landfall on Friday evening, said Carla Fajardo, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services.

Facing heavy rains and winds of up to 102 miles per hour, those living in wooden homes with thatched roofs sought shelter with relatives and friends living in sturdier houses. When the severe weather rattled cement-block houses and ripped off their roofs, residents moved again, this time to huddle in churches and other relief centers set up around the city.

Wind gusts reached 149 miles per hour as the night wore on, causing sea levels to rise and the town’s canals to flood, while ripping the roofs from buildings and leaving thousands exposed. Nearly 26,000 people were displaced in Mananjary alone.

The town’s hospital was also badly damaged. Patients and staff took refuge in the recently built surgical and maternity wards, the only parts of the hospital that withstood the storm, Ms. Fajardo said. Aid officials fear that some inmates in the local prison may not have been rescued in time.

Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, visited the devastated town on Monday, tweeting images of palm trees strewn across roads, and a church with sheets of its corrugated metal roof twisted off.

The pattern of damage has changed from the storms of past years. “Because of climate change, what we are observing is that the trajectory of the cyclones are changing,” Ms. Fajardo said.

In the center of the country, flooding caused by Cyclone Batsirai has threatened crops, making a country already experiencing a drought in some areas even more susceptible to food security, said Jean-Benoit Manhes, who works for Unicef in Madagascar.

“Seventy-seven percent of the country is ultra-poor, and any shock can transform those ultra-poor into complete misery,” Mr. Manhes said.

The capital, Antananarivo, a high-lying inland city, suffered the most fatalities during Tropical Storm Ana partly because it was unaccustomed to this “once-in-a-decade storm,” Mr. Manhes said. The city was spared this time but is already grappling with a third wave of Covid-19 infections.

While preventive evacuations may have saved lives on the coast, the recovery across the country will be complex. In good weather, getting to Mananjary took several days by car and small boats. Aid agencies are now trying to reach the affected area over damaged roads and flooded rivers, Mr. Manhes said.

The south of the country, while largely spared the devastation of Cyclone Batsirai, is in the grip of a drought that has left thousands of families reliant on food aid. Main roads linking the capital to smaller communities have been destroyed by the storms, making efforts to relieve the drought-hit Grand Sud area even more difficult.

Cyclone Batsirai has weakened as it moved west, and was not expected to cause as much damage to nearby Mozambique, also still reeling from Tropical Storm Ana.

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