The Birth of a Raging Beast

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In Mozambique, legend has it that rivers flood only after a mystical mountain gives birth to a dragon. It has been so long since the mountain gave birth that people were accustomed to building houses in dry riverbeds. But last week there came a beast worse than any dragon: Cyclone Eline.

The deadly storm hit Mozambique as rains from a tropical low pressure system in the Indian Ocean spread west into a large area of southern Africa, including the eastern and northern provinces of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana. As the rains thundered into inland catchments, streams became rivers, rivers became torrents and dams overflowed, sending sheets of water east through Mozambique to the sea. Cyclone Eline added wind and still more bucketing rain to a deluge that left the central port city of Beira without electricity or telephones. Further south, the fishing village of Imhambane was washed away entirely.

The Limpopo River, not long ago reduced to almost a trickle by drought, burgeoned to a width of up to 3 km. "The Limpopo valley isn't a valley any more, it's a lake," says Georgia Shaver of the World Food Program in Maputo. The wfp appealed for 6,000 tons of food to help up to 300,000 people whose homes were engulfed by the Limpopo. "It's still raining inland," says Shaver."The waters are still rising."

South African military helicopters helped with rescue work and ferried food, blankets and medicine to the flooded areas. "We are talking at this stage of basic survival needs," said Katarina Velasquez, head of the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination team in Maputo. "Then we will face our biggest fear--epidemics." Mozambique's President Joaquim Chissano warned: "We cannot do this alone. The damage is massive and we need help fast."

The floods and winds hit as Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, was recovering from the effects of almost 16 years of civil war following independence from Portugal in 1975.

The natural disaster brought prompt international reaction, with unicef putting up $1.4 million and the U.N. calling on member countries to provide $13 million. "This country was a success story," said unicef chief Carol Bellamy. "We can't let them down." Chissano estimates the number of people who need help will be more than 800,000.

Not long ago Maputo schoolchildren were given a project on using their imagination to describe a flood or a cyclone. When they eventually go back to their schools--those that have not been washed away or buried in mud--many of the children will know far too much about the real thing.