President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa estimated that last week’s catastrophic flooding displaced more than 40,000 people. Hundreds of people have been killed and dozens are unaccounted for.CreditCredit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesDURBAN, South Africa — The rain has stopped in Durban. The sun has risen and clouds have lifted from the lush green hills.
But people here are only just beginning to process the complete devastation around them.
A week after pounding rain in this coastal region caused one of the deadliest natural disasters in South Africa’s history, the government on Tuesday was plotting an arduous road ahead of cleanup and rebuilding, while still trying to recover dozens of bodies believed to have been buried under mud or washed-out to sea.
President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday evening declared a national state of disaster, almost a week to the day after the Durban area was overwhelmed by flooding and mudslides that have killed a confirmed 448 people. About four dozen people remain unaccounted for, Mr. Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation, and more than 40,000 have been displaced from their homes. Nearly 4,000 homes have been completely destroyed and more than 8,300 have sustained at least some damage, the president said.
“Tonight, we are a nation united in our grief,” Mr. Ramaphosa said.
This was the latest disaster in a string of powerful storms across southern and eastern Africa that have claimed hundreds of lives and razed communities already struggling with poverty. For many, it has underscored the increasing toll of climate change, especially for the most socioeconomically vulnerable, and amplified the need for a more aggressive government response in South Africa and elsewhere to stem the rising number of weather-related fatalities.
“Very often, not just in South Africa, but in many other developing countries as well, there simply isn’t the money, there’s not the expertise and there isn’t the government will to invest properly in protecting the poorest in society,” said Jasper Knight, a professor of physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Much of the death and destruction occurred in settlements of flimsy shacks constructed by people who could not otherwise afford stable housing. Some took place in communities of small, cube-like homes that sit in valleys near rivers or cling to hillsides.
Throughout eThekwini, the municipality that includes Durban and many surrounding suburbs, apocalyptic scenes were on display.
In the township of Inanda, north of Durban, a bend in a road came to an abrupt end where a bridge had collapsed, leaving a gap about half the size of a football field with a drop-off of hundreds of feet.
Beyond finding those who are still missing, Mr. Ramaphosa said the most urgent matters include providing water, food and shelter to people in badly damaged communities; restoring access to the Port of Durban, one of the busiest in Africa, handling 13,000 heavy vehicles per day; and repairing the more than 600 schools that have been damaged.
Officials of the province, KwaZulu-Natal, were expected to deploy 25 water tankers to various communities on Tuesday to provide water for the residents there.
This was the third major flooding in the region in the past five years, and the president suggested that it was time to be more strategic about rebuilding.
“We need to increase our investment in climate adaptation measures to better safeguard communities against the effects of climate change,” he said.
A cluster of houses in Inanda, north of Durban, that were destroyed during last week’s flooding in Kwazulu-Natal Province. Residents who lived in the houses are missing. Credit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesJOHANNESBURG — The floods in Durban are one of South Africa’s deadliest natural disasters, but part of the reason so many people died is man-made: the country’s failure to deal with a longstanding housing crisis.
Millions of South Africans — in a nation where the unemployment rate is more than 35 percent — cannot afford stable, permanent homes. So many end up building tin shacks wherever they can find land, often in the least-desirable locations, creating what are known here as informal settlements.
In the case of Durban and the surrounding area, those locations are often in low-lying valleys next to rivers or on steep, slippery slopes — among the most dangerous places to be when severe rain storms strike, as was the case a week ago.
After a week of punishing rain, mudslides and flooding flattened hundreds of those shacks in Durban. South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, said informal settlements were particularly affected by the extreme weather. Nearly 4,000 homes were destroyed, many of them in informal settlements.
Informal settlements are in many ways a legacy of apartheid. During that time, South Africa’s Black majority was relegated to live in certain far-off places. Once the racist system ended, Black residents could at last move freely around their country’s cities.
Yet many struggled to find places to settle in cities that were built to deliberately keep them out. So in the years after apartheid, as millions of people across South Africa left impoverished rural areas to live and work in cities, they were unable to find suitable housing. Instead, they settled in tin shacks, which mushroomed in many of the country’s cities.
To try to account for the lack of affordable housing, South Africa’s government has built more than three million free houses since the end of apartheid, according to a government report. But even that has not kept up with demand. Over the years, even more shacks have sprung up in more cities, creating a housing crisis with a backlog of more than two million households who seek shelter.
“There was a change in terms of law that people can live wherever they want to live, but the difficulty is that there wasn’t an economic policy to match that,” said Edward Molopi, a researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.
And the free matchbox houses built as part of South Africa’s national housing scheme are also beset by the same challenges of apartheid-era spatial planning and limited budgets. These homes are built far from city centers, where land is cheaper but jobs are scarce. Hospitals and schools are built years later.
Many who have been able to obtain free housing choose instead to return to shack homes because they are closer to cities and jobs, trading improved living conditions for economic opportunity, Mr. Molopi said.
“The idea was basically the very same apartheid pattern of thinking that poor Black South Africans do not deserve to be nearby cities,” said Sbu Zikode, one of the leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers movement.
Across the country, 11.8 percent of South African households live in these informal dwellings, according to Statistics South Africa, a government agency.
President Ramaphosa, in addressing the nation on Monday night, acknowledged that the government needed to be more deliberate about where it placed housing.
Rebuilding from the floods, he said, “will also involve the construction of houses in suitably-located areas and measures to protect the residents of these areas from such adverse weather events in the future.”
— Lynsey Chutel
Search crews and volunteers waded through muddy rivers and rubble from destroyed homes looking for dozens of people believed to be missing.CreditCredit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesINANDA, South Africa — They slipped on wet suits, life vests and helmets as they braced for a grim ritual that continues days after deadly flooding.
The more than a dozen recovery workers then waded across a brown river of thigh-high water. They rounded a bend past a waterfall and trudged down a steep path through thick trees before reconnecting with the Mzinyati River at the bottom of a valley.
They were in search of six family members from the Inanda township who were believed to have perished in the devastating flooding that struck the Durban area last week. The bodies of four other members of the same family have been recovered.
On Tuesday, a week after the worst of the rain and flooding swept through this hilly region on South Africa’s east coast, hundreds of aid workers and volunteers continued the difficult task of wading through thick mud, bumpy river banks and rubble from destroyed homes to try to find the dozens of people still believed to be missing. Nearly 450 people already have been confirmed dead in one of the worst natural disasters to strike South Africa.
“We get a lot of floods, we get a death toll, but not as high as this one,” said Colin Deiner, the head of disaster management and fire rescue services in Western Cape Province, who was deployed to this area to help manage a team of rescue workers.
Mr. Deiner is overseeing firefighters from his city, Cape Town; members of a humanitarian nonprofit, Gift of Givers and Search; and Rescue South Africa, another nonprofit. Meeting at a small airstrip north of the city of Durban every morning, the volunteers from all across the country gather to get their search assignments. Teams of volunteers then go out in convoys with the South African police to look for victims of the flooding.
Ian Austin, a volunteer with the organization, was part of the crew that went to search the Mzinyati River. He has worked emergency medical services since 2007 and started volunteering in rescue in 2019. Mr. Austin, 30, has found a couple of bodies since coming to search in Durban last week, he said.
“This is probably one of the worst things I’ve seen,” he said. “Just the large scale of the devastation.”
The river valley that Mr. Austin and other crew members were searching on Tuesday afternoon had been searched several times before. Teams have been making their way down the river, believing that the family, whose house was swept away, may have been carried down this far.
About an hour into Tuesday’s search, the team found a body. A military helicopter descended into the valley to collect the remains, which were loaded into a royal blue bag and handed over to police in a field of grass and dirt next to the river.
Emergency workers opened the bag to reveal a young girl, probably less than 10 years old, dressed only in a pink shirt. Officials will now begin trying to identify her and find her family members.
After the workers zipped up the bag, Albert Powrie, a medical officer with the Cape Town Fire Department who was helping to examine the body, returned to his white pickup truck. He wiped the sweat from beneath his fisherman’s hat.
“Twenty-seven years in the brigade. This is what we do,” he said. “It’s a good moment because at least one family is going to get their family member back. It’s at least going to give them closure.”
Rescuers recovering the body of a person who was swept away in flood waters in Inanda, north of Durban.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesJOHANNESBURG — Officials descended on the city of Durban and its surrounding townships on Tuesday to survey the damage and begin organizing relief efforts.
Provincial leaders met with teams of rescue workers at an airport that has become a coordination point for rescue efforts. Snacks and energy drinks were stacked high to sustain the rescue workers from around the country who have been searching for flood victims for more than a week. Ten thousand troops from the South African National Defense Force have also been deployed.
Search-and-rescue teams recovered five more bodies on Tuesday, said Sihle Ziklalala, the premier of the KwaZulu-Natal province, where punishing rains led to flooding and mudslides last week. Officials also held a moment of silence for a police diver who drowned alongside her service dog while searching for three victims in the Msunduzi River.
Elsewhere in Durban, education officials delivered mobile classrooms to some of the more than 600 damaged schools. Even as floodwaters recede, relief workers cannot reach more than a dozen schools.
Others delivered water tanks to homes that have been without running water for days. Government teams worked alongside charity groups and volunteers to distribute food and clothes to hundreds of people who have been displaced or affected by the flooding.
Diplomats from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Algeria, Japan and other nations have offered aid, said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who leads the ministry coordinating disaster relief.
“We have not necessarily received the support yet, but they’ve requested to know what is needed,” she said in a televised briefing.
— Lynsey Chutel
Looking at houses in Inanda, north of Durban, that were destroyed during flooding in the Kwazulu-Natal Province.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesJOHANNESBURG — In the aftermath of catastrophic floods in South Africa that have left more than 440 people dead and thousands displaced, government officials and environmental activists have blamed disruptive weather patterns for one of the worst natural disasters the country has experienced in decades.
“These floods are a tragic reminder of the increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised address on Monday.
While announcing a national disaster recovery plan for the devastated area, South Africa’s president also pledged to reduce emissions and invest in climate adaptation measures to better protect vulnerable areas.
Still, activists criticized the South African government for its slow adaptation despite its own ambitious plans. In 2019, after flash floods and mudslides left more than 70 people dead in the same region, the city of Durban introduced a climate action plan. Activists say the plan has done little to address the coastal city’s immediate challenges.
“Mere disaster relief measures are just piecemeal and reactive. They will not work,” the Climate Justice Charter Movement, an umbrella organization of climate change campaigners in South Africa, said in a statement.
In one of the world’s most unequal countries, addressing climate change would take more than early warning systems and improved infrastructure,” said Gina Ziervogel, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s environmental department.
“It also requires addressing inequality and capacity more broadly to deal better with multiple shocks,” she said.
In just about two days, Durban and surrounding areas experienced the equivalent of a month’s rainfall, scientists at the University of Cape Town said. While heavy rains are common during this time of year, Durban is one of several cities on Africa’s southeast coast that has seen an increase in rainfall that some scientists attribute to climate change.
It was the latest storm in a season that has left a trail of devastation across several southern African nations. The island nation of Madagascar has been hit by a cyclone and four tropical storms that left at least 178 people dead during February and March.
But the storms, originating in the southern Indian Ocean, pummeled the mainland as well. Thousands were displaced along Mozambique’s coastline, with flooding reaching as far inland as landlocked Malawi and Zimbabwe. South Africa’s eastern KwaZulu-Natal Province also saw heavy rain and flooding in February.
A study by World Weather Attribution, an initiative that specializes in pinpointing the links between climate change and individual weather events, looked at rainfall levels during Cyclone Batsirai and Tropical Storm Ana in January and February and found that “climate change is elevating risk in places where tropical cyclones are already affecting agriculture, infrastructure, livelihoods and lives.”
— Lynsey Chutel
Phumla Ngaleka near a cluster of houses that were destroyed during last week’s flooding north of Durban.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesDURBAN, South Africa — As the sun set on a misty Monday evening, Phumla Ngaleka wrapped herself in a heavy salmon-colored blanket as she stood on a dirt mound, staring, her eyes glistening with tears, at the remnants of her mother’s house north of Durban — a few cement bricks stacked about a foot high.
Somewhere beneath the orange-ish mud, the scattered furniture and the tin sheets, lay her mother, brother and two nieces. Eight days earlier, the home where they were sleeping was washed away in the dark of night by heavy rains and roiling floods that battered the coast of KwaZulu-Natal Province. Ms. Ngaleka, 36, could barely speak as she waited for someone — anyone — to recover the bodies of her loved ones. Her pain was raw and real.
“We need closure so that we can know peace and they can rest peacefully,” she said, her voice slightly above a whisper. “We need help.”
Dozens of families across one of South Africa’s largest metropolitan areas were battling through similar anguish.
Ms. Ngaleka had come to her mother’s home township, Inanda, from her home in the Eastern Cape Province.Her aunt, Nomvula Zeka, 46, witnessed the horror from her home across a narrow pathway from the one occupied by Ms. Ngaleka’s mother, Nomcoseleli Ngaleka.
Ms. Zeka described hearing a loud sound like an explosion as the nearby Nhlungwane River burst its banks and washed away a large section of the road high above the cluster of modest homes. After a neighbor woke her up, she rushed outside to warn her family. But she was stopped by water coming up past her waist in the pitch black of night.
“I ran to warn them about the rising water, but I was too late,” she said. “It was dark, and the water was loud.”
Ms. Zeka said she heard Nomcoseleli’s son, Bulelani Ngaleka, calling out from the house for help, asking what they could do. But it was too late. The floods quickly swooshed in and washed the house away.
Now only a heap of mud, broken trees, mattresses and other furniture remain of the home where the victims include Asikelelwe Ngaleka, 11, and Yamkela Mjeje, 13. Next to that rubble, all that remains of another home is the pale yellow entryway, with the house number — 5285 — and “Girls Power” painted next to the front door in black.
Relatives have been arriving from all over the country to join the recovery efforts. They dig through the mud with shovels and wade through the river. Ms. Zeka has been searching local mortuaries.
As a light rain came from the sky on Monday evening, Ms. Zeka felt shaken.
“I’m terrified of the rain,” she said. “I wasn’t before, but now I’ve seen what it can do.”
Khulekani Ndebele, a community leader, said he felt as though the people of that area had been forgotten.
“We flagged down the police, and they said there’s nothing they can do to help us,” Mr. Ndebele said. “They need special machinery to look for the bodies under the mud.”
— Zanele Mji
Nearly 4,000 homes were destroyed after torrential rain caused flash flooding and landslides that killed more than 440 people last week.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesJOHANNESBURG — The city of Durban has begun rebuilding after what South African officials described as the most devastating floods in living memory. Yet, hundreds of residents displaced by floods from earlier years are still languishing in transit camps, or semi-permanent housing scattered around the city.
Nearly 4,000 homes were completely destroyed after torrential rains caused flash flooding and landslides last week that have killed more than 440 people. President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that more than 8,300 other homes had sustained at least some damage. Those sheltering in church halls and classrooms will be relocated to transit camps as the government rebuilds their homes, officials said.
It is too soon to know the cost of rebuilding the homes and the infrastructure, the officials added, but they expect it to run into the tens of millions of dollars. While modest, prefabricated homes are being erected in these new camps for those displaced by the floods, the residents of Durban’s 21 existing transit camps are increasingly frustrated. Some have been living in these communities since 2009, when their tin-shack homes made way for stadiums and refurbishments for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa. Others began living in the camps when Durban was hit by flooding in 2017 and 2019.
City officials moved Themba Lushaba, 34, and his family to a one-room house of tin and drywall in 2009, to make way for the World Cup infrastructure. Thirteen years later, Mr. Lushaba is still waiting for that permanent dwelling.
The settlement in the township of Isipingo is wedged between a field and a noisy highway, with a maze muddy alleyways between the home. It flooded in 2011, 2017, 2019. This year, the water was waist high.
“It hurts me to stay here,” he said. “It’s dirty all over.”
Some are still living in tents, waiting for government promises of relief aid that never materialized, said Sibusiso Zikode, a housing activist and one of the leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers movement concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal, the province where the rains and flooding occurred.
“Those people were never attended to. They remain destitute,” said Mr. Zikode. This latest disaster has not only brought repeated material losses for these victims, it has renewed the trauma of displacement, he said.
When the new settlements are built, they must be erected on ground that is not vulnerable to flooding, officials have said. Informal settlements, as shack communities are called in South Africa, are often erected on land that is open, accessible and vulnerable to disaster, like low-lying areas or on riverbanks.
As housing officials scout for land, they will have to compete with industry, said a spokesman for housing. Durban, which is on South Africa’s east coast and home to one of the continent’s largest harbors, also suffered significant industrial losses. Reopening the port is a priority. In a country where more than a third of the population is unemployed, the officials also have to find land that is affordable, near amenities like hospitals and close to job opportunities.
The government is also trying to be more efficient than in the past. Rebuilding after the 2017 floods was slowed by a complicated process for awarding government contracts, said Mr. Baloyi. Designed to empower Black-owned businesses and create transparency in public contracts, the process has been troubled by corruption in Durban and throughout the nation.
This time around, South African officials hope that President Ramaphosa’s Monday declaration of a national state of disaster will speed up the recovery. The government has introduced a voucher system that allows flooding victims to buy their own building materials and reduce reliance on the government.
“That will make them go back home sooner than if we have to wait for government to repair every home,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who leads the ministry coordinating the disaster relief.
— Lynsey Chutel and John Eligon
Rescue workers on Tuesday praying for flood victims.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York TimesDURBAN, South Africa — The devastating weather that swept through Durban a week ago hammered one of the top tourist destinations in the country during one of the most important times for tourism in the region: Easter.
The result was much less activity than expected, said Ravi Pillay, the executive in charge of tourism, economic development and environmental affairs for KwaZulu-Natal province. Hotels across the province, which includes Durban, averaged 45 percent occupancy for Easter, he said, much less than the roughly 80 percent that provincial officials had hoped for.
The dip in tourism was especially disappointing given the fact that the region had performed better than usual in tourism in the first quarter of the year, Mr. Pillay said. Things had been improving as the pandemic subsided, he said.
Heavy rains that persisted through Easter wiped away roads, homes and infrastructure, killing more than 440 people and damaging or destroying thousands of homes. The government had to provide some hotels with water tankers so that they could supply water to their guests.
“We were really hoping for a bumper Easter, and a lot of planning had gone into it,” Mr. Pillay said. “The floods had an impact, but we’re a pretty resilient tourism sector. We’re busy building back, preparing for the July vacation.”
Durban is a popular place for a getaway because of its year-round sunshine, warm weather and more than 350 miles of coastline.
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