- MDF chopper saves lives, 1 dead
Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers yesterday displayed life-saving heroics when they plucked 15 people—including two schoolchildren—from imminent death after they were trapped in flooded rivers in Lilongwe.
What has turned out to be the worst flooding disaster in Lilongwe came to a head yesterday morning after Lilongwe, Lingadzi and Nankhaka rivers broke their banks following several hours of rainfall that started Thursday afternoon and only stopped yesterday morning.
The floods have since claimed one life—that of a traditional leader in Area 36 in Lilongwe Village Head Chapata died after being swept away in a bloated river, which also crumbled scores of houses.
It was like a military warfare scene when the MDF helicopter descended on the first group of four stranded school children in the raging Lingadzi River.
At that point, shocked onlookers had seen how the two children had been swept away as they tried to cross a rickety bridge. Then they saw two brave men dive into the waters to try and rescue them; but the onlookers were bracing themselves for the worst when the four could do no more than holding on to one another.
But the onlookers exuded loud cheers after seeing the helicopter’s sudden appearance from the sky, at a critical moment, to effect the rescue. And the troops endeared themselves more to the people when they successfully yanked the stranded people to safety despite challenges that included surging waters and whipping winds, including draughts from the chopper rotors.
The soldiers were part of joint rescue efforts by officers of the Lilongwe City Council Fire Brigade and the Malawi Police Service (MPS) in the affected areas such as Ntandile, probably the hardest-hit location, and Areas 47, 49, 15, 18 and 25.
Lingadzi River proved to be more notorious as metres of surging waters literally cascaded into people’s houses, in the process submerging others and sweeping off property.
By early afternoon, the extent of the damage was yet to be assessed by the property owners and various stakeholders. However, city and government officials indicated that for much of yesterday, their officers’ prime assignment was to rescue and help resettle those trapped in the disaster.
“We have asked the MDF to continue hovering around the affected areas, to spot where people are calling for help. At the moment, our focus is to save lives,” Commissioner for the Department of Disaster Management (Dodma) Ben Botolo said.
He said the initial reports he had received indicated that the most affected areas were Ntandile and Area 49, but added that the picture would become clearer after an aerial assessment later in the day.
Added Botolo: “We are working out on a package for the affected. The best way was to set up shelters for them. The challenge is whether we can locate all the people affected and how to assess the real victims.”
The commissioner alluded to the fact that some people who might not be directly affected might try to sneak in and benefit from the government assistance. “We have to be careful,” he said.
Botolo said flooding has also been reported in Lilongwe and Salima and it is expected that Kasungu and Dowa might be affected as well.
Lilongwe City Council (LCC) said their personnel were on the ground assessing the situation and could not immediately come up with the extent of the damage the flooding rivers had caused.
LCC spokesperson Tamara Chafunya said the main affected areas were Ntandile, Area 49, Area 47, Area 15 and 18.
“Our main focus at the moment is to save the lives. There is coordination between the council, police and MDF to search and rescue those trapped while our officers are on the ground to assess the damage. We have also informed clinics to be on the alert,” she said.
Relief officials were unanimous in conceding that Lilongwe residents were lucky to have experienced the disaster during daytime. They fear that many people could have died, or been injured had the flooding occurred in the night.
Most workers in Lilongwe, especially in Ntandile area, say they had gingerly walked on footpaths and crossed bridges to work or their businesses, with the least suspicion that the flooding they were seeing would build up to a destructive invading force an hour or so later.
Suddenly, as push came to shove, some parts of the city roads were submerged, with vehicle owners beating retreats and trying to find alternative routes. Some cars were trapped in the flood waters for several hours before their drivers could safely use alternative routes.
In Salima, flooding waters damaged the railway line and other infrastructure. District commissioner Rodney Simwaka said the floods have washed away the Salima-Balaka railway line at Khwidzi Village near Chipoka in Traditional Authority (T/A) Ndindi and also damaged part of the M5 Road on the Salima-Nkhotakota section, at Siyasiya Trading Centre in T/A Khombedza, making the Lakeshore Road impassable.
“We have been hit hard with the floods which have not only displaced people, but also damaged infrastructure. The damage is bigger than we thought,” Malawi News Agency quoted Simwaka as saying.
Central East African Railways (Cear) public relations officer Chisomo Mwamadi said his organisation’s chief engineer and his team were on the ground to assess the damage and would come up with the way forward.
Chilima commends MDF
Yesterday afternoon, Vice-President Saulos Chilima went to the MDF Airwing base in Lilongwe where he commended the men in uniform for rescuing people who could have died in the floods.
He said the Lilongwe floods came as a surprise and shocking to government as the city was least expected to be affected.
The Vice-President, who on Thursday was in Salima visiting and launching the start of a distribution of relief items for over 1 000 people displaced by floods, was taken on a helicopter tour to see the extent of the Lilongwe disaster.
At Airwing, some soldiers were heard describing the dilemma they faced when rescuing two children who clang to a maize stock as the soldiers communicated with them to hold-tight.
“I was telling myself, ‘please, God, let not these children die under my watch’. Luckily the children held on and we rescued them,” said one senior MDF official.
Ironically, as the Vice-President arrived, the rescue helicopter had to rush for yet another emergency mission concerning a man who was trapped in a tree along Lilongwe River. He was safely evacuated.
After the helicopter tour, Chilima described seeing houses completely swallowed up by the flood waters, while some maize fields were washed away.
“This is tragic,” he remarked, saying people should be discouraged from constructing houses, or gardening, near river banks, as they become vulnerable to floods.