Cyclone Idai death toll climbs to 600 as survivors, rescue workers battle dire conditions

Click to play video: 'Thousands still need rescuing after cyclone devastates parts of Africa'
Thousands still need rescuing after cyclone devastates parts of Africa
WATCH: Thousands still need rescuing after cyclone devastates parts of Africa – Mar 21, 2019

BEIRA, Mozambique — With the flooding easing in parts of cyclone-stricken Mozambique on Friday, fears are rising that the waters could yield up many more bodies. The confirmed number of people killed in Mozambique and neighboring Zimbabwe and Malawi climbed past 600.

Eight days after Cyclone Idai struck southeast Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, touching off some of the worst flooding in decades, the homeless, hungry and injured slowly made their way from devastated inland areas to the port city of Beira, which was heavily damaged itself but has emerged as the nerve center for rescue efforts.

READ MORE: ‘I have lost everything’ — Mozambique residents plead for help after Cyclone Idai kills hundreds 

“Some were wounded. Some were bleeding,” said Julia Castigo, a Beira resident who watched them arrive. “Some had feet white like flour for being in the water for so long.”

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Aid workers are seeing many children who have been separated from their parents in the chaos or orphaned.

Survivors of Cyclone Idai collect food aid at Ngangu in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, March 22, 2019. Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the relief efforts so far “are nowhere near the scale and magnitude of the problem,” and the humanitarian needs are likely to grow in the coming weeks and months.

Helicopters set off into the rain for another day of efforts to find people clinging to rooftops and trees.

Pedro Matos, emergency coordinator for the World Food Program, said rescuers are sometimes spotting “just a hut completely surrounded by water.”

With water and sanitation systems largely destroyed, waterborne diseases are a growing concern.

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WATCH: Mozambique begins recovery operations after deadly Cyclone Idai

Click to play video: 'Mozambique begins recovery operations after deadly Cyclone Idai'
Mozambique begins recovery operations after deadly Cyclone Idai

“The situation is simply horrendous. There is no other way to describe it,” As Sy said after touring camps for the growing number of displaced. “Three thousand people who are living in a school that has 15 classrooms and six, only six, toilets. You can imagine how much we are sitting on a water and sanitation ticking bomb.”

The death toll in Mozambique rose to 293, with an untold number of people missing and the mortuary at Beira’s central hospital already reported full. Deaths could soar beyond the 1,000 predicted by the country’s president earlier this week, As Sy said.

Locals look on after Cyclone Idai in Buzi district outside Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The number of dead was put at 259 in Zimbabwe and 56 in Malawi.

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Thousands made the trek from inland Mozambique toward Beira, some walking along roads carved away by the raging waters. Hundreds of others arrived by boat, ferried by fishermen who plucked stranded people from patches of land that had been turned into islands. Many of the arrivals were children.

In Beira, people salvaged the metal strips of roofs that had been peeled away like the skin of a fruit. Downed trees littered the streets.

And yet there were flashes of life as it used to be. White wedding dresses stood pristine behind a shop window that hadn’t shattered.

READ MORE: Cyclone Idai leaves behind ‘inland ocean’ in devastated African countries 

A downtown sidewalk was Marta Ben’s new home. The 30-year-old mother of five clutched a teary child to her hip as she described the sudden horror of the storm that destroyed their home in Beira.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, barefoot, a cooking pot bubbling nearby. “We were not warned. Suddenly the roof flew away.”

She and others now homeless begged passers-by for help, saying they had received nothing from the government or aid groups, not even bread.

WATCH: Cyclone Idai death toll rises as thousands await rescue

Click to play video: 'Cyclone Idai: Death toll rises as thousands await rescue'
Cyclone Idai: Death toll rises as thousands await rescue

In Zimbabwe, where roads began to open and some basic communications were set up, a fuller picture of the extent of the damage began to emerge.

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The victims included a mother buried in the same grave with her child; headmasters missing together with dozens of students; illegal gold and diamond miners swept away by raging rivers; and police officers washed away with their prisoners.

In the city of Mutare, Maina Chisiriirwa said she buried her son-in-law, who had gone to the diamond fields to mine illegally.

“There are no jobs and all he wanted was to feed his family. He was with his colleagues. They thought it would be easier to mine since the rains would keep the guards and the police away from patrolling,” Chisiriirwa said.

His colleagues survived, but her son-in-law was swept away, she said.

— Farai Mutsaka reported from Mutare, Zimbabwe.

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