January 17, 2015 - Malawi Flood Disaster Update #1

January 17, 2015

Malawi Flood Disaster

by David Morrison      

On Sunday nights we gather for worship on the Iris base to welcome in the new week. Our theme this week was Joshua 1:9,Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  Little did we know how important that verse was going to be as we walked through the week. 

At 3AM on Tuesday morning, phones began ringing. Iris staff, house parents, and commissioners receiving distress calls from anxious family, friends and pastors, scared because of the raging flood waters that were overcoming their homes. As it became light, callers continued to describe their fearful situations and pleaded for us to help. By 7AM we had received reports that many were trapped by the raging currents in trees and on top of termite ant hills, watching the quickly rising surge that within hours could sweep them away. Unfortunately, the prediction was accurate for some.

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As quickly as possible, David Walker (Iris Missionary) and myself prepared our two Iris boats and gear. Pounding rain caused poor visibility as we put the boats in at the flooded Bangula market. Flood surges with wild currents moved through the district, transforming the Shire River into a huge sea, stretching east and west many kilometres past its usual banks (at least 5 km’s on the west side, and likely close to 15 km’s on the east side.)

Bangula market area and the M1 highway heading south from Bangula were under water. Whole villages near the Shire River and Ruo River have been completely submersed in water. Our district is just one of many other areas devastated by floods. The government has declared one third of the country a disaster zone.

It wasn’t hard getting the boats in the water. We put the boats in just meters off the main highway. Assisted by a marine police officer in David Walkers’ boat, and Hedson Nsitu (House Father at Iris) in my boat as our navigators, we set out towards the area of James Village on the other side of the Shire River where most of our distress calls were coming from. We went with the authority of the Nsanje District Commissioner. 

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[M1 Highway through Bangula on Tuesday, January 13th, 2015]

We did not know the magnitude of the raging waters until we were out in the middle of it.The volume of water and the power of the current were unbelievable. We had assisted with the flood relief in 2007, 2009, and 2012, but this is absolutely the worst people here have ever experienced. The extent of destruction and suffering is overwhelming.

Rainy season in southern Malawi has only just begun and cyclones from the Indian Ocean are continually heading towards us. Granted, they lose their strength over Madagascar, but still head to Malawi as tropical storms. Current satellite pictures show several more cyclones forming and more wet weather is predicted for Malawi over the next few days and weeks.

After navigating for two hours across the flooded Shire River, we were well into the villages on the east side, moving through the waters covering fields, and maneuvering around roofs of homes. We were in Mterika Village. It wasn’t long before we heard the screams of people who saw us first. We found numerous groups of people huddled on tops of termite hills.  Rescue with the boats was difficult because of raging waters surrounding the ant hills.  In some areas the current and waters created white water and hay stacks. One particular rescue was extra challenging, causing us to have to make several attempts because we kept getting carried down with the powerful current.  We eventually found that sweet spot of quieter water, like an ‘eddy’ between the currents on the down side of the flow. I used the engine power to keep us in place as Hedson helped the people into the boat as quickly as possible.  In this village we needed to move as many as possible in the shortest amount of time so we simply took them a short distance to higher ground within their village. 

It was heartbreaking to force them to leave all their belongings on top of the ant hills – we just didn’t have space and lives were more important. It wasn’t long before some of those ant hills were eroded by the current. Many more would have perished had they remained on those hills much longer.

From there we went to James Village and found people in similar situations, some in waste high waters. After rescuing about 70-75 people we had to make the hard decision to head back to Bangula as daylight was running short, otherwise, we too would need rescuing. Leaving people behind was heart breaking, but there was nothing we could do. By the next day the Malawi Defense Force had arrived with their boats and continued rescuing people in that same area. I know many more were saved. Sadly, many have perished. The toll of this flood is only now becoming clear. Today, the official count is 176 people have perished and there are still hundreds missing. Out on the water we witnessed the destruction of thousands of homes. Currently it is estimated that there are 200,000 people displaced. Only about 1 home in 10 remained standing.  In some areas, every home was destroyed and washed away by the currents. Livestock, crops, houses, ox carts, all washed away.  

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[People of James Village marooned on a small piece of higher ground being rescued by Iris boats.]

Thankfully, we are not out on the water today. The flood surge is moving on. Every hour more and more land is emerging. The land is now revealing the violent destruction that has taken place. 

It is hard for officials to get an assessment of the damage due to washed out roads and communications. People who had been calling us are now silent, and we presume their cell phones have lost charge and, given that power has been out since Monday, there is no place to recharge.    

Emergency shelters have been set up at all the primary schools so for now, education is on hold, and it could be weeks before students get back to schools. Tents have been provided for the displaced and there are camps set up in strategic places such as behind the Bangula Primary school. In a culture where extended family has no boundaries, many of our staff have been inundated with extra mouths to feed – some have 20 extra people in their homes.

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[Making nsima at the camp for displaced at Bangula Primary School ground.]

The Malawi government has promptly responded to this disaster. The World Food Program have already provided food by helicopter drops to those still inaccessible by roads or by boat, and have provided food for those in the camps. However, the clean-up and rebuilding from this disaster is going to take months, likely years. The road leading east from Bangula towards Makhanga has been completely destroyed.  Not damaged, but completely eliminated, bridge and all. All that remains is the main steel railroad bridge over the main Shire River. It stands as an Island. On Thursday, David Walker and I piloted our boats, working together with the Malawi Defense Force and Police, evacuating people from that bridge who had been stranded there for three days. We had seen people there Tuesday as we headed out to James Village but the current was so powerful, we had the sense not to even try to attempt getting close to the bridge. 

I have a great respect for the soldiers and the police that we have been working with this week. We have been impressed with their skill, strength, and willingness to put their lives on the line in order to help save the lives of others. 

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Now that the initial emergency rescue operation is complete, we can focus on how we can help the displaced. We are aware that there is an immediate need for baby formula and fortified porridge, soap, blankets,buckets and water purification tablets/solution. Long term, people will need food assistance, seed for winter planting in May, resources for local schools, and provision for people to rebuild their homes.

The Iris base has weathered the storm so far. We are adjusting to intermittent generator power as most of the southern districts of Malawi have been without power since Monday. We are repairing part of our front security wall that collapsed due to the force of rain. Currently we have no power in our office so I’ve set up in our living room to make use of our back up battery power. 

We have (7) displaced people living here with us here at Iris, the last of those we rescued from James Village on Tuesday.  They are relatives of Hedson, so we brought them back here where they are completely safe with dry clothes, food, and shelter. 

Joanna’s holding up strong. She had a difficult job to do on Tuesday. Hard to have peace while we were out on the water in the storm. I wasn’t able to communicate with her until mid-afternoon. It is easy to think the worst when there is no news. She was relieved when I finally got a signal and was able to call and give her an update. Still, Joanna is a woman of faith, and she gathered others throughout the day to pray. Many of you joined her in prayer. God answered those prayers with miracles, life-saving miracles. 

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[The village of Mukhanga the day after the flood surge receded.]

Thanks for your concern for us and the large Iris family.  If you would like to help support the Malawi disaster relief, you can make a donation through Iris Ministries Canada www.irismin.ca,  Iris Ministries UK info@irisministries.co.uk, or Global IRIS USA  www.irisglobal.org. Designate your gift ‘Malawi Disaster Relief.’

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