South African police, army and volunteer rescuers have widened the search for dozens still missing five days after the deadliest storm to strike the city of Durban in living memory as the death toll rose to nearly 400.
The floods, which affected nearly 41,000 people, left a trail of destruction and killed at least 395 people, said Sipho Hlomuka, the 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 catastrophe of enormous proportions … not 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 descending on our country, particularly on our KwaZulu-Natal province. The floods have caused a lot of devastation 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 comb through a valley in Marianhill suburb, west of Durban, to look for 12 people reported missing in the floods, AFP correspondents said.
It is an increasingly desperate search for survivors. Travis Trower, a director for the volunteer-run organization Rescue South Africa, said his teams had found only corpses after following up 85 calls on Thursday.
Thousands of survivors, left homeless after their houses were destroyed, are being housed in shelters scattered across the city, sleeping on cardboard sheets and mattresses on the floors.
Housing Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi, said 13,593 houses had been damaged, of which nearly 4,000 were totally destroyed.
Meanwhile volunteers, with gloves and trash bags, fanned out across the city’s beaches to pick up debris left by the massive storms.
Software manager Morne Mustard, 35, was among the scores of volunteers, who included children, picking up debris and broken reeds from Durban’s famous Umhlanga beach. “This is my local beach where I bring my kids, and this is where we spend our weekend, so this is for our community,” he said.
He roped in workmates, families and friends to help clean up as beach restaurants offered free breakfast for the volunteers.
Recalling the day the rain fell, Mustard said, “It didn’t feel real, absolute devastation, a horrendous sight, stuff spilling out on the beach must have come from someone’s house … brooms and mops, household utensils.”
Some of Durban’s poorest residents have been lining up to collect water from burst pipes and dug through layers of mud to retrieve their scant possessions.
Ramaphosa declared the region a state of disaster to unlock relief funds. Speaking to Newzroom Afrika television, finance minister Enoch Godongwana said an initial tranche of a billion rand ($68m) in emergency relief funding was immediately available.
Weather forecasters said apocalyptic levels of rain had been dumped on the region over several days.
Some areas received more than 450mm (18in) over 48 hours, or nearly half of Durban’s annual rainfall, the national weather service said.
The South African Weather Service issued an Easter weekend warning of thunderstorms and flooding in KwaZulu-Natal into Saturday evening.
More than 4,000 police officers have been deployed to help with relief efforts and maintain law and order amid reports of sporadic looting.
The Durban port, one of the southern hemisphere’s largest, resumed shipping operations on Thursday afternoon, after closing during the floods, state logistics firm Transnet.