Return of Cyclone Freddy: at least 190 dead in Malawi, the hardest hit country

Cyclone Freddy, which had already affected southern Africa at the end of February, is back. It has again hit Malawi which is paying the heaviest price, with at least 190 dead.

After following a looping path rarely recorded by meteorologists, Cyclone Freddy has returned to southern Africa and continues to wreak havoc in Malawi. A final report on Tuesday reported at least 190 dead, 584 injured and 37 missing in the country.

Poor and landlocked, Malawi is currently paying the heaviest price for the return of the tropical cyclone. The National Office of Disaster Management fears that the toll will increase further as research progresses.

In the township of Chilobwe, near Blantyre, the remains of houses were washed away by the mudslides. The wind died down but the rain persisted. Many residents are convinced that dozens of bodies are still buried in the mud. On Monday, families and rescuers searched the earth with their bare hands, hoping to find their loved ones and diggers have since been installed in some places.

In a statement, Doctors Without Borders was alarmed to see the hospital in the region “overwhelmed by the influx of wounded”. “The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital alone received 220 people, including 42 adults and 43 children declared dead on arrival,” the NGO said.

The cyclone and its damage affected nearly 59,000 people in Malawi. Nearly 20,000 have been displaced, urgently housed in schools or churches. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was “saddened by the loss of life” and the risk of seeing cholera cases jump is on everyone’s mind. Malawi, in lack of vaccines, is already facing the deadliest epidemic in its history.

An exceptional tropical cyclone

Freddy formed off Australia in early February and has been raging in the Indian Ocean for 36 days, a record longevity. It hit southern Africa for the first time at the end of February, before crossing from east to west over more than 10,000 km to hit Madagascar and then Mozambique.

At the time, the death toll was 17. But then, extremely rare, Freddy recharged in intensity and humidity above the warm seas, before turning around. He returned to fall on southern Africa, two weeks after his first passage. Last week, it killed 10 more when it made landfall again in Madagascar.

This tropical cyclone is described as exceptional by experts. According to NASA, he notably broke the record in the southern hemisphere for an indicator called cumulative energy of tropical cyclones (known by the English acronym ACE). This measures the total energy of the winds associated with the cyclone over its lifetime.

While it is too early to link Freddy’s extreme nature to climate change, research does note an increase in rapid intensification events in recent years. For Allison Wing, associate professor at Florida State University, “climate change is making tropical cyclones stronger and rainier, and increasing the risk of coastal flooding.”