Zimbabwe Cyclone Idai
Mid-March 2019 Cyclone Idai hit Beira in Mozambique and tracked across the country heading directly towards Chimanimani in Eastern Zimbabwe. As the cyclone hit the mountain range it rose and unleashed an overwhelming amount of water in a very short space of time. Walls of raging water and boulders crashed into houses across the district, destroying bridges and leaving the whole area inaccessible to the outside world.
People were found strewn across the banks of the rivers and hundreds were swept away into Mozambique. A whole village in Kopa was completely destroyed. New rivers, 70 meters wide formed where there once was no watercourse. Hundreds of mudslides are visible across all mountains ranges in the district with many still very unstable and susceptible to dislodging.
Kilometres of roads have been destroyed and even after two weeks many areas still remain inaccessible by road.
Our Crisis Response Team were put on standby but it was only after a call to former Chimanimani Outward Bound Warden, Dave Meikle, that the seriousness of the situation was truly understood. The international response was focused on Mozambique but Cyrilyn and I decided that Zimbabwe was to be our destination. I had worked in the area in 1993 as an outward bound instructor and mountain rescue so it made complete sense to deploy.
I activated the Crisis Response Team (CRT) and Dr Ben and Dr Balazs Fazekas were able to deploy so plans were set in motion. Our mission to Identify, Make Safe and Keep Safe children orphaned by the disaster.
I called the Zimbabwe embassy in London and spoke to the deputy ambassador. He put me in touch with a senior official in the Ministry of Health. She then put me in touch with the permanent secretary of health. He explained that for our doctors to practise, they needed to be cleared by the Council of Medical and Dental Practitioners. I sent the forms to Ben and Balazs and got these to the council quickly. I then spoke to the permanent secretary of health again and he asked if we had any nurses, to which I replied we didn’t. He then handed the phone over to the minister of health and we had a conversation. The minister reiterated that the doctors needed to be approved by the council in order to practise but welcomed us to enter the country to help with the response. The producers of BBC Radio Nottingham were calling me into the studio whilst I was on the phone to the minister of health. The call ended and I walked straight into the studio for the interview, cutting it fine!
A few hours later I received a call from a lady called Doris Hollander. She had just visited the embassy in London and wondered if we needed any medical supplies. I thanked her but said our loading list was complete. She then randomly gave me the name and number of the director of nursing in Zimbabwe and said to mention that Doris had given me her number.
I pondered this and then decided to see if Kezia Lawrence- Graham was available to deploy. Kezia had applied to join the CRT but was unable to attend the February selection. I took the above seriously and made an executive decision to see if she could come. Kezia came back with a yes. I then went to book her tickets but the price had gone up nearly £2000. I called Kenya Airways Cargo, whom I had been working with to get our aid in the plane, and their price was £900. Kezia was coming. I called the director of nursing in Zimbabwe and she said the nurses needed to be registered with the nursing council and told me to get her application to her ASAP. This was Friday afternoon. Monday morning, before we left for the airport, Kezia’s permission to practise came through. This was our gateway in through the ministry of health.
It was two days after we began preparing to deploy that the UN opened Zimbabwe up as a major emergency.
I then received a call from a lady called Christine Sanders in Zimbabwe and she asked if she could join us to document by film the deployment and with this she could provide a 4x4. We discussed how filming would take place in a way that was sensitive to the needs of the children and would not look like a journalist. With all this agreed, I accepted her offer.
Our friend Lauren Mariani then Facebook messaged Cyrilyn asking if she could post a request for logistics support. They agreed and shortly after this, Stuart from FX Logistics in Harare called. The result of our conversation was that he would provide a 1 tonne truck, driver and fuel for free to take our kit to the helicopter landing zone site in either Mutare or at Skyline.
Team ready to deploy, tickets booked on Kenya Airways, 42 boxes of aid on the flight, vehicles and fuel from Harare to the Eastern Highlands - everything in place within a few days. Remember that Zimbabwe is in an economic crisis and fuel is short and on top of that Beira was the main port where crude oil would come via pipeline to Zimbabwe. A very challenging environment to step into and operate, yet everything was in place.
As soon as the Global Disaster Alerting Coordination System had given contact details for the UN, I started working with them to see if we could get a helicopter flight into Chimanimani on either the Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning. We only had a limited amount of time to get the medical team in and out because of their work schedules back in the NHS. I had all the contact details and the UN had our request and loading list so that when we arrived things were in place to move forward.
I had also requested the ministry of health help with getting customs clearance for our aid but had not received confirmation before we flew as time had run out.
The team - Brad, Balazs, and Kezia left on Monday morning, with Rob Wilson driving the van, heading for Heathrow. They van picked Ben up and we all met at Terminal 4. Kenya Airways were expecting us and everything got loaded without issues and we boarded the flight.
On the flight we met two amazing people, Ernie and Paul. Can’t say too much more but it is all good.
When we arrived in Harare all the luggage was there and I approached Zimbabwe Revenue Authority for customs clearance. Sadly, they knew nothing about our arrival and the day before, a medical team from Botswana that arrived was refused entry. I have to say that not one of the airport staff wanted to refuse us entry but they simply needed clearance from the ministry of health. I called the permanent secretary of health and things started getting sorted. It did take seven hours but amazingly we were let through with no search and without the final certificate being issued.
As it was dark we stayed in Harare at Christine’s house and planned to meet the FX logistics truck at 5:30am to head to Mutare.
I was fortunate to be able to spend a few hours with my sister and her family.
We arrived in Mutare around 9am and headed to Zimbo’s for food and to finalise plans. I had to meet the provisional medical director to get provincial clearance. When we met she informed me that the time and need for doctors was over so she did not give approval for our doctors to operate. She did however approve Kezia to operate as a nurse. This was tough for the lads but our team know our mission and I am so proud of their professionalism and commitment to the mission. Their role was now primarily child welfare.
I was introduced to the provisional nurse and she arranged for us to meet the district nursing officer in Chimanimani who would release a nurse to work alongside Kezia when we were in the camps.
I then went to provisional command and met the provisional head of social services. She approved our deployment and informed the senior social services office in Chimanimani of our arrival. She gave us written permission and directives. She also approved us to give our aid out alongside a member of her team.
The process to get on the UN flight proved to be too bureaucratic and after a chance conversation at Zimbo’s we found out the name of the civilian guy coordinating the helicopters from Mutare. We kitted up and drove to the aerodrome.
On arrival we introduced ourselves to Myles and very quickly found that we all had mutual connections and the atmosphere changed to let’s get this team in. There was one South African helicopter in bound and just enough time to make a final trip for the day. With time very short I had to choose three to infill and select the kit we needed. I chose Ben and Kezia which left Balazs and Christine and the bulk of the kit behind. A new route had just opened, accessible only by 4x4, so the plan was that the following day the remaining kit would be helicoptered in with the Air Force and the team would drive around in the 4x4. I asked Oni, one of our team in Mutare, if he would join them as a local fixer. All the years of journey management planning and risk mitigation was applied in the space of a few minutes and thankfully worked. We took off and the journey over the mountains was truly breath-taking. However, the scale of the disaster that unfolded beneath us as we approached Chimanimani stunned us all.
Dave Meikle was there waiting at the landing zone and we disembarked hastily because the chopper had to be back in Mutare quickly so as to be within regulations.
We drove straight to command and introduced ourselves. One of the first people I met was Rev Nevha Femayi. Over the last 6 years Operation Orphan has been supporting Hope for life, a project Nevha founded in Mutare.
After meeting the acting district administrator, the district nursing officer and Joshua, the head of social services, we agreed a time to meet the following morning and then headed to Dave and Irene Meikle’s house. They kindly allowed us to base with them but because the district was cut off, food and fuel was scarce. Also as all the rivers were now dirty, clean water was an issue as well. The Crisis Response Team deploy completely self-sufficient so we’re able to survive, however the hospitality and care of the Meikles was second to none. Dave kindly allowed us to use his 4x4 pick up and accompanied us throughout the deployment.
The next day Myles told us our kit was flying in on an army helicopter and would hopefully land at the top landing zone. However, we weren’t certain this would actually happen and so the team went down to the other landing zone and I waited at the top. I met a policeman along the way and asked if he could provide security should the helicopter arrive. He agreed and no sooner had this been done the sound of rotas broke the silence. The chopper landed gracefully only for me to find out that 50ft off the ground a hydraulic pipe had burst and the pilot had to land with no hydraulic assistance. This meant we could offload and chat while the team returned from the lower landing zone. We loaded the kit and took it to the Meikle’s for storage, picked up Joshua, Nevha and Blessing and headed to the first camp - Ngangu Primary School. We picked up the nurse and no word of a lie as we turned into the primary school, we met Christine, Balazs and Oni at the junction. The team were now all together, all the kit was in the disaster zone and we were meeting the people.
Many things happened while were in the camp.
The guys played games with the kids. Kezia did a health check on every child. Some were referred and some she treated with the medicine we brought. No major issues were found but things like dehydration were caught early.
Water filters were given to every household and a full training session was given. Knitted blankets were given to all the children under five years old. We set up a tent, training Joshua and Blessing and also gave it to a very vulnerable family who had lost everything.
Whilst all this was going on we were gathering any information on disaster orphans. This day, no disaster orphan was found.
We returned after a busy and full day to the command centre and then attended the daily debrief at 6:30pm (we did this every day).
We returned to the house and set up a few tents and all had dinner. Individuals bathed using half a bucket of water. Hot water came from a pot on the fire. The generator went on for a few hours each night but by 9 pm we were all in the dark.
The next day we met with Joshua again and headed to the larger camp at the secondary school.
The guys distributed the water filters and Kezia checked over 70 children. Blankets were given and an orphan check done.
Sadly, two families were found in the camp where both parents were missing and the children were now in the care of their very old grandparents. When I mentioned we would pay for the school fees of the five children now in her care the old lady leant her head against Kezia and started weeping.
We kept the tents for the camps that were being prepared for the displaced people so they could move out of the schools. The primary school toilets were destroyed along with the borehole. I reported back to command the health risks of the shallow temporary pit latrines dug for the camp. The head of social services asked if there was any help in trying to rebuild the toilets.
Regarding clearing the schools for the beginning of term, I saw a company setting up large tents on the school field. I knew from command that resettlement camps were not at the school. I introduced myself to the person in charge and explained this to him. He had just seen the child friendly tent and assumed this was where the camp was and so began erecting the tents without having spoken to command. I explained the situation, called in Joshua and took him to meet the acting district administrator. After the meeting he packed up and went to the official site.
At the end of the day we had distributed 90% of our aid and deliberately kept back the remainder. This is so that Joshua and his team have something to give the most vulnerable they find once we left.
That night we went to command meeting and then the team prepared to depart early on Saturday morning. The medics had to get back for shifts on Monday morning. They all arrived home safe and our plan is to debrief in a few weeks.
I planned to remain to wrap things up. The next day I met delegates from Miracle Mission and helped advise on a delivery strategy of 35 X 30 tonne lorries of aid donated by the Zimbabwean people. The key point being that it has to be distributed through, but not necessarily by the authorities, namely Joshua at social services and his team. I can confidently say that Joshua and his team worked tirelessly to be accountable and ensure the aid that dripped through reached the intended beneficiaries.
Once this meeting was complete I met up with Joshua and introduced him to Andrew, the Miracle Mission representative. We worked through the details of a distribution plan and witnessed an incredibly ordered and peaceful food distribution. This was a brilliant example of how things could be done when people dropped their egos and worked together. We then visited a family across the river who had lost the dad. Four kids and mom were left. I gave them each and blanket and showed them how to use the family water filter. The four are also now a part of the family and we will be covering their school fees as well. Andrew left us and Joshua and I then went to meet the Pondo family. The 3-year-old twins had lost their mother to the storm and their dad had just returned from hospital. We gave them blankets, colouring books, a football and colouring pencils. They were truly delighted. Joshua, Dave and I then visited the club house and agreed it would be the best campsite for the vulnerable children.
We then dropped off the remaining blankets and water filters at Joshua’s office.
The following day was Sunday and I spent time with Dave and Irene in the morning and then went down to meet Joshua. We finalised how we were going to work going forward and I dropped off the remaining tents at his office. We had been asked not to erect them until the housing cluster had begun erecting tents at the camp. Because we had trained Joshua and his team I felt confident leaving the tents with him to erect later in the week. I let District and Provisional Command know I had done this. This was the end of our activity however I needed to close things officially so I went to my last Civil Protection meeting. I expressed my thanks for the warm reception and I encouraged them to continue working with integrity and transparency as the acting district administrator had previously encouraged. I asked if we could bring teams from the UK to help strengthen the children’s care structure there was a very warm reception and invitation by the acting district administrator.