Johannesburg: A tropical cyclone that is among the most ferocious ever to strike Africa's eastern coast continued to bring heavy rains and fierce winds to Mozambique on Friday, and there are fears that it could lead to the kind of deadly floods that devastated the country last month.
The storm, Cyclone Kenneth, destroyed scores of homes and killed at least one person in Cabo Delgado, the northern province where it made landfall Thursday evening. More than 700,000 people live in the cyclone's path, according to the United Nations, and the government has already evacuated more than 30,000.
Citing preliminary information, UNICEF reported Friday afternoon that more than 16,000 people had been affected by the storm, and that nearly 3,000 houses were damaged and 450 "totally destroyed."
The maximum wind speed of the cyclone weakened rapidly overnight after landing and slackened from 140 mph to 85 mph, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, as it moved north of Pemba, the provincial capital, into more sparsely populated districts.
Still, forecasters warned of an elevated risk of flooding because the cyclone was moving unusually slowly. The cyclone was the first of its magnitude to hit Cabo Delgado in modern history.
Enrique Alvarez, the head of the World Food Program's office in Pemba, said that the city had suffered less flooding than expected, although some parts were inundated, prompting the authorities to move affected people to shelters.
He praised government officials, saying they appeared to be better prepared than they had been when Cyclone Idai hit the Beira region in central Mozambique last month, killing more than 1,000 people there and in Zimbabwe and Malawi. The response in Pemba, he said, was "very well organized by the government."
Government and aid officials, however, remained alert to the cyclone's potential to cause destruction in the coming days. Heavy rains after Cyclone Idai last month caused two rivers in the Beira region to overflow, flooding vast areas and forcing people to seek shelter on rooftops and in trees.
Cyclone Kenneth spared the Beira region, landing instead in the less-populated northern reaches of the country.
As of Friday morning, there were no reports of major flooding in Cabo Delgado, said Saul Butters, assistant country director for CARE Mozambique, but he cautioned that the situation could change.
"There should be sustained intense rainfall for the next 48 hours, so I'm not sure we will avoid it," he said.
Rising river levels threatened flooding in five districts of Cabo Delgado province, officials warned. The Messalo River, which cuts through the middle of Cabo Delgado and is the province's second largest, burst its banks during severe flooding in 2000, causing 700 deaths.
Forecasters predicted that as much as 20 inches of rain would fall in parts of the province over the weekend. Pemba typically receives about 5 inches of rain in April.
"Some areas will experience a year's worth of rain in a short period of time," said Dorothy Sang, a manager for the aid group Oxfam who is based in Beira.
She added that chronic poverty and food insecurity in the region were likely to worsen the impact. Nearly 60% of the population in Cabo Delgado lives below the poverty line, making it one of the country's poorest provinces.
A day after Cyclone Kenneth made landfall, the hardest-hit areas were north of Pemba. On the island of Ibo, 90% of the homes were flattened, leaving 15,000 homeless, government officials said.
In Macomia District, people were reportedly running out of food and water, said Corrie Butler, a spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Nairobi, Kenya. "Homes were destroyed in higher zones where the cyclone blew them over," Butler said.
In a statement Friday, a Red Cross relief worker, Antonio Carabante, said the agency was concerned about communities it had lost contact with, especially given the threat of dangerous flooding in the coming days.
"Many of these areas are prone to flooding and landslides in normal rainfall, and this is far from a normal situation," he said.
Roads were in bad shape and flights to the region were grounded, making it difficult to get an overall sense of the damage, said Saviano Abreu, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"Many people are displaced, but we don't know the numbers," Abreu said from Beira.
Before landing in Mozambique, the storm killed three people in the island nation of Comoros. Volunteers were engaged in "urgent first aid," Butler said, adding that telephone lines were down, roads damaged and homes destroyed.
Tanzania's southern region, just north of Mozambique, had been expected to be struck hard by the storm but was largely unscathed as of Friday morning, Butler said, with the cyclone curling into northern Mozambique.