South African police, military and volunteer rescuers have widened the search for dozens of people still missing five days after the deadliest storm to hit the city of Durban in living memory as the death toll amounted to nearly 400.
The floods, which affected nearly 41,000 people, left a wake of destruction and killed at least 395 people, said Sipho Hlomuka, regional head of the disaster management ministry.
President Cyril Ramaphosa – recalling the Covid-19 pandemic and the deadly July riots – described the floods as “a disaster of enormous proportions…never seen before in our country” and urged Good Friday prayers for survivors.
“Just as we thought it was safe to get out of [the Covid] disaster, we have another disaster, a natural disaster that is befalling our country, particularly our province of KwaZulu-Natal. The floods caused a lot of damage, a lot of havoc,” he said.
With the government coordinating the search and rescue operation, the official number of people missing in KwaZulu-Natal province stands at 55.
A fleet of cars and helicopters carrying police experts set out early on Friday to search a valley in the suburb of Marianhill, west of Durban, in search of 12 people missing in the floods, sources said. AFP correspondents.
It is an increasingly desperate search for survivors. Travis Trower, director of the volunteer-run organization Rescue South Africa, said his teams found only dead bodies after tracking 85 calls on Thursday.
Thousands of survivors, left homeless after their homes were destroyed, are housed in shelters scattered across the city, sleeping on cardboard sheets and mattresses on the floor.
Housing Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said 13,593 houses had been damaged, including almost 4,000 totally destroyed.
Meanwhile, volunteers, with gloves and bin bags, fanned out on the city’s beaches to pick up debris left behind by the huge storms.
Software manager Morne Mustard, 35, was among dozens of volunteers, including children, picking up debris and broken reeds on Durban’s famous Umhlanga beach. “It’s my local beach where I take my kids, and it’s where we spend our weekends, so it’s for our community,” he said.
He enlisted co-workers, family and friends to help clean up, as beach restaurants offered free breakfast to volunteers.
Recalling the day the rain fell, Mustard said: “It didn’t seem like real, utter devastation, a horrible sight, things pouring onto the beach must have come from someone’s house…brooms and mops, household utensils.”
Some of Durban’s poorest residents lined up to collect water from burst pipes and dug into layers of mud to salvage their meager possessions.
Ramaphosa has declared the region in a state of disaster to release relief funds. Speaking to Newzroom Afrika television, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said a first tranche of one billion rand ($68 million) of emergency relief funds was immediately available.
Meteorologists said apocalyptic levels of rain had been dumped over the area for several days.
Some areas received more than 450mm (18 inches) in 48 hours, nearly half of Durban’s annual rainfall, the National Weather Service said.
The South African Meteorological Service has issued an Easter weekend warning of thunderstorms and flooding in KwaZulu-Natal until Saturday evening.
More than 4,000 police have been deployed to help with relief efforts and maintain law and order despite reports of sporadic looting.
The port of Durban, one of the largest in the southern hemisphere, resumed shipping operations on Thursday afternoon after closing during flooding, state logistics company Transnet said.