Floods in South Africa leave survivors traumatized and homeless

When Nozipho Sithole closes his eyes to sleep, she can still hear the cries of his neighbour’s two young children as they were swept away by the floodwaters that killed hundreds in South Africa last month.

Like Sithole, many who live in a community hall in the eastern city of Durban are haunted by what they have seen and what they have lost.

Stifled sobs echo through the shelter at night, she says.

“The night the floods started the sand looked like it was boiling water, the whole house was moving,” said the 35-year-old, who gave up her job as a care giver at a nursing home to leave. caring for flood survivors. .

“The sand and the river engulfed the little ones,” she said as she cradled the baby of another resident of the Ntuzuma district shelter in Durban.

The community center has housed around 300 people left homeless by floods in KwaZulu-Natal province, which killed at least 430 people, displaced thousands and caused damage estimated at 10 billion rand ($685 million). ).

Many are traumatized or grieving, others feel defeated and unable to begin to rebuild their lives, said Nokuthula Shandu, an adviser to the medical association Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

“Survivors ask ‘work for what?’, what they earn won’t be enough to build a new house, they feel hopeless,” she said.

From California to India, extreme weather shocks linked to climate change – floods, droughts and wildfires – will increasingly take a toll on people’s mental health, requiring specialized care from local authorities, according to the experts.

“They need to feel safe, they need to feel seen,” Shandu said, after a day of counseling dozens of flood victims.

“No time to rest”

In Ntuzuma, thin mattresses line the walls as young children walk around barefoot, asking elders for bits of toilet paper before heading to portable toilets lined up in the parking lot.

Informal settlements of shacks built of corrugated iron suffered the worst damage from the floods. Many of their inhabitants were unemployed, struggling to survive in one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Three-quarters of the 340 people housed at the Ntuzuma shelter were unemployed.

Others, who worked as servants, masons, gardeners and informal traders, lost their identity documents in the floods, making it even more difficult for them to find work, Sithole said.

Although the provincial government did not respond to requests for comment, it estimated that more than 6,800 people were left homeless by the floods and said work had begun on temporary housing for nearly 4 400 families.

In Ntuzuma, an informal system has emerged in the shelter, led by Sithole and other women who monitor and distribute donations, ensure food is cooked and water is distributed.

The children formed homework clubs to work together on their school work. A church donated a Wi-Fi router in the lobby so residents could connect.

To wash up, shelter residents must bring a bucket of water to the portable toilet.

“What we all need is a place of our own, here there is no privacy, there is no time to rest,” Sithole said, adding that they had not yet heard whether the government would help displaced residents rebuild their homes.

First aid for the mind

Providing mental health services is as important as providing shelter and food aid, Shandu said, adding that people were queuing for advice.

“They said even if they need food, we have to talk first, otherwise they won’t even want to eat,” she said.

MSF has trained more than 200 community health workers in KwaZulu-Natal in mental health awareness so they can refer patients to certified counsellors.

“This training was born out of the realization that there were simply not enough counselors or social workers to go around, not even close by,” said MSF spokesperson Sean Christie.

The medical humanitarian organization is also training shelter leaders – like Sithole – to lead community support groups and invite local musicians to play for flood victims.

But many shelter residents said they already felt forgotten.

“It’s like we don’t exist,” said Thandeka Ndlovu, 36, as she prepared to serve hot meals prepared in the kitchen of the Ntuzuma community hall.

She said she hoped counseling would help her and her three daughters get through their ordeal.

“They say time heals everything,” she said. “Maybe one day we can just see the rain as rain.”

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