At least 443 people have died in floods that have devastated South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, according to an official, as rescuers searched for dozens of people still missing in the southeastern coastal region.
Sihle Zikalala, the province’s premier, said on Sunday that the dead included two emergency workers and added that a further 63 people remain unaccounted for.
The floodwaters are the strongest to have struck KwaZulu-Natal in recent memory and were triggered by torrential rains that lashed the province last week.
The deluge engulfed the region, smashing into the port city of Durban and surrounding areas, pulling with it buildings and people. Most of the casualties were in Durban, and parts of the city have been without water for days.
Scores of hospitals and more than 500 schools in the region have also been destroyed.
“The loss of life, destruction of homes, the damage to the physical infrastructure … make this natural disaster one of the worst ever in recorded history of our province,” said Zikalala.
In some of the worst-affected areas, some residents faced an agonising wait for the news of missing loved ones.
“We haven’t lost hope. Although we are constantly worried as (the) days continue,” said Sbongile Mjoka, a resident of Sunshine village in the eThekwini municipality whose eight-year-old nephew has been missing for days.
In a nearby semi-rural area, three members of the Sibiya family were killed when the walls of the room where they slept collapsed and four-year-old Bongeka Sibiya is still missing.
“Everything is a harsh reminder of what we lost, and not being able to find (Bongeka) is devastating because we can’t grieve or heal. At this stage we are left feeling empty,” Lethiwe Sibiya, 33, told Reuters.
Amid the destruction, climbing temperatures and an overcast sky, survivors sought divine solace and temporary distraction from their misery while observing Easter Sunday.
Thulisile Mkhabela went to church, at a large white concrete building with a tiled roof – one of a few solid structures left standing by the raging floods that engulfed her Inanda township.
She recalled watching her house gradually collapse under the weight of the waters six days ago.
It started with the living room. “We took out whatever we could,” she said, and took the children to what was thought to be a secure outbuilding. As “soon as we took them out then the bedroom started collapsing”, she said.
The family then moved to an outbuilding, which had also been damaged but held together for the rest of the night.
That building has since collapsed and they are now “squatting” in her brother’s two-bedroom house where 12 people are crammed.
Worshippers at the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa raised hands as tears rolled down, while others fell to the ground during emotional prayers.
Rains were starting to let up on Sunday, allowing for search and relief aid operations to continue in and around Durban. The city of 3.5 million was overcast but the South African Weather Service said rainfall would have cleared by midweek.
The government, churches and charities were marshalling relief aid for the more than 40,000 people left homeless by the raging floodwaters.
The government has announced an immediate one billion rand ($68m) in emergency relief funding.
Deputy Social Development Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said some 340 social workers had been deployed to offer support to traumatised survivors, with many still missing children and other relatives.
The intensity of the floods took South Africa by surprise.
While the southeastern region has suffered some flooding before, the devastation has never been so severe. South Africans have previously watched similar tragedies hit neighbouring countries such as cyclone-prone Mozambique.
The country is still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and deadly riots last year that killed more than 350 people, mostly in the now flood-struck southeastern region.
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