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Cyclone Idai Has Displaced Thousands In Southern Africa

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're learning more now about the damage from the cyclone that hit southern Africa late last week. It was so large that it affected multiple African nations, so large that a United Nations official speculates it could rank among the worst weather-related disasters ever recorded in the southern hemisphere. A different United Nations official is on the ground in Mozambique today. We found Gerald Bourke, as you're going to hear, inside a crowded room at an airport. It's the location of a command center and one of the few places that still has electricity in the city of Beira.

GERALD BOURKE: Not a building has been untouched. Power lines are down. There's no telecommunications. And the water system is out of commission. There are lots of displaced people, thousands of them, sheltering in schools and churches. They are getting some help, but they need a lot more.

INSKEEP: How large a city is this? By which I mean, how many people are, perhaps, now in desperate need of help?

BOURKE: The numbers are very, very difficult to estimate, and that's because the scale of the crisis is just impossible to quantify. It's been very difficult to get out because it has been raining constantly for the last couple of weeks. The roads are blocked. But a colleague who has overflown some of the areas from Beira told me about a particular inland ocean, as he called it, caused by a river bursting its banks. He said it was about 50 by 60 kilometers in area. And what he saw was people crammed on rooftops, on slivers of elevated land, evidently desperate. Some of them have been airlifted from those places. But many more are still there. And surely, many others are unaccounted for.

INSKEEP: Now, over this somewhat uncertain phone line, I believe you said that there was a single flooded area, 50 by 60 kilometers. How developed was the city before the disaster? - the infrastructure, the roads, the bridges, the communications and so forth.

BOURKE: It's the fourth-largest city in Mozambique. And it's also a port city. And it's a gateway for many countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. So it was commercially thriving, a busy place. And now it's going to take months, if not longer, for the people and the city to recover from this.

INSKEEP: Can the port function?

BOURKE: The port reopened yesterday.

INSKEEP: So does that create a potential way to get significant amounts of aid in, given a few days or a few weeks?

BOURKE: It does, indeed. But obviously, speed is very, very necessary. Planes are being mobilized. The World Food Program is bringing in three MIA transport helicopters. But we've got to move fast. And, of course, because such a large area is flooded, boats are also vital. They too are being mobilized.

INSKEEP: You mentioned three transport helicopters. I'm sure they can carry a lot of food. But if we're thinking about a city full of hungry people, that's really not very much food at all. How do you get more in?

BOURKE: I mean, this effort requires all hands to pump. There are lots of aid agencies here. More are coming in - many dedicated people. We are working with the government, supporting the government. This has to be a massive enterprise because the need's huge.

INSKEEP: Mr. Bourke, thank you so much - really appreciate it.

BOURKE: Thanks to you, Steve. Take care.

INSKEEP: Gerald Bourke is a spokesperson for the UN World Food Program. He is in the city of Beira in Mozambique in the wake of a cyclone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.