Reflections on Cyclone Idai

by Judi Heichelheim, Chief Operating Officer, PSI

Below, PSI’s COO gives a first-person account of her recent trip to Mozambique to review recovery efforts after the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai.

If you would like to support the PSI Mozambique in their recovery efforts from the storm, please consider a donation to their GoFundMe page.

Flying into Beira, Mozambique, we could see the power of Cyclone Idai as soon as our plane landed. Half the letters were missing from the damaged sign on the airport’s roof. Helicopters and piled food supplies scattered the normally lonely tarmac.  This was a sign that things were going in the right direction–the response teams are coordinating.

We attended the morning briefing of organizations who have arrived in response. Different clusters gave quick summaries on the latest news of the day and coordination needs.  One of PSI’s roles is in the WASH cluster (water and sanitation).  While cholera has broken out, people are mobilizing and feel confident we’ll get ahead of the outbreak.  In addition to concerns about cholera, some fear malaria cases will rise soon. Another group is working to restore clean water into Beira municipality.   Rescue missions and food drops are still happening in the more remote areas, where flooding is still an issue.  Clearly there is an effort to coordinate, but still, some chaos remains.

Heading into Beira, roads had been cleared of debris, so passage was smooth.  It was striking to see tree after tree either stripped to the trunk or completely downed.  Almost every house either had significant damage or the roof blown off completely.  Several camps have been set up to help those who lost their homes.  We passed one camp, a sea of blue and white tents– a collaboration between the Moroccan government (blue) and UK Aid (white). UNICEF latrines and one Chinese tent were pitched up front.  Vodafone was at the camp providing cards for airtime, as well as a charging station.  Some of the tents had small solar panel devices so people could keep their phones charged, even while displaced. DKT was there providing contraception; PSI is also planning to deploy into communities and camps with SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) services, but right now most of our team is seconded to the ministry of health or other NGOs to help amplify messages about safe water.

Witnessing the devastation and relief efforts in Beira was impactful, but our real objective there was to see our team, led by a brave woman named Lourdes.  25 staff work for us in Beira, and at the time of the storm we had 40 promotors who focused on SRHR services in the surrounding communities.  After Cyclone Idai, we ballooned our staff in Beira to 350 to ramp up our response.

In the early days after the storm, it was impossible for anyone to get up to Beira without special clearance or helicopters.  We knew our staff in Beira were accounted for through WhatsApp. Our Deputy Country Representative, Benicio, was the first to deploy from PSI Mozambique’s office in Maputo, the capital, to Beira. He has 15 years of experience working in humanitarian relief and was able to quickly reorient the team into action.  Benicio told me that when he arrived, PSI’s staff in Beira were still in shock, carrying out basic tasks, but too frozen to make any decisions.  They needed him to see their homes and listen to their stories of fear as they lived through the storm.  They shared some of that with us during our visit.  What struck me most was their description of the terror they felt as they heard the storm’s extreme howl of wind. It is hard to imagine what that would have felt like, not knowing if you would survive Mother Nature’s fury.  They will never forget that sound.

Our staff in Beira needed to be heard and witnessed; they needed their pain, loss, and suffering acknowledged.  They also told us that getting back to work has been a key form of therapy to help them get on with their lives and assist in the recovery efforts. As we wrapped up our work at the office, Ryan (the Country Representative), Benicio and I all stressed that PSI is not front and center of the humanitarian relief efforts, but how critical it has been that we’ve contributed with what we know best – our product, Certeza, which treats water, and as a result, helps stem the Cholera outbreak.

We also reminded our staff that PSI’s ability to connect to local communities is essential and needed.  People in Beira know PSI, but they don’t know the many relief organizations that have descended into the area after the cyclone.  PSI’s 350 promotors are creating bridges into the communities.  They should feel proud of this, and the fact that they, and PSI, will be there long after the relief organizations move on.

The second key priority for our visit was going to the factory where Certeza water treatment is manufactured.  We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the owner of the factory, Mr. Livramento.  His factory made it through the storm, but the roof blew off, electricity was gone and like everyone else, he had furniture and equipment damage. Despite these challenges, he quickly found roofing material to protect the part of the factory where Certeza is made. Mr. Livramento has generators to provide electricity, and he’s now able to manufacture about 12,000 bottles a day.  He’s considered offering a double shift, but he can’t have the staff work into the evening because of the mosquitos.  This is a story of real heroes who are doing everything they can. They maintain a small margin but know that they are key to helping this community survive the aftermath of Idai.  As of my visit, PSI/Beira has given over 233,000 bottles of Certeza to the government and a variety of other organizations to distribute into communities.  Our 350 promotors are embedded to help convey key messages on safe water and sanitation. If all of this is done well, that amount of Certeza can keep water safe for 1 million people for a month.  We know the need this work will go on much longer, as municipal systems are not yet safe and may continue to be compromised for some time.

The road to recovery will be long.  Some of the key development partners – DFID, the Dutch, and the US government are already asking about partners like PSI, who have a proven long-term commitment to Mozambique’s communities.  What is the six-month plan,  the 12-month plan, or even the two-year plan?  How can we evolve our thinking to understand the added vulnerability these communities face?  And how do we continue our ongoing and still much-needed health work when the focus is on safe water? How do we make sure girls and women can continue to access SRHR services when the focus has been placed on safe water?  How do we make sure people living with HIV can access anti-retroviral treatment?  How do can we prevent the sexual exploitation of girls who are displaced or the inevitable rise of sex work as a means of recovery? Beyond health, how do you clean up all the mold that has grown on walls, replace all the furniture that has been damaged? How and when do you start to put roofs back on the shelters?

The challenges ahead are not just about surviving the immediate aftermath but regaining balance and building resilience after the storm.  It’s easy to forget how vulnerable we are to Mother Nature; disasters happen all over the world and they’re traumatic for everyone.  But where there is poverty, disaster is harder, and less fair, to those who suffer.



All photos courtesy of Judi Heichelheim

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