Picking up the pieces after lethal tornado

2019-11-14 09:50
Scores of people in Mpolweni were left homeless after a tornado swept through their village on Tuesday afternoon destroying everything in its path.PHOTOS: Moeketsi Mamane

Scores of people in Mpolweni were left homeless after a tornado swept through their village on Tuesday afternoon destroying everything in its path.PHOTOS: Moeketsi Mamane

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Midlands residents gathered themselves under dark skies on Monday to pick up the pieces after a lethal tornado, rain, hail and wind flattened houses, trees and crops, leaving hundreds destitute and thousands without power.

Two people were killed and at least 18 injured when the tornado hit Mpolweni late on Tuesday afternoon.

Many houses and informal dwellings were completely flattened, and the area was littered with torn-off corrugated iron roofsheets, branches and uprooted trees. Mpolweni, New Hanover and surrounding areas, as well as parts of Hilton were battered by intense winds.

The storm caused major damage to infrastructure, and left about 15 000 people in Mpolweni, Dalton, Albert Falls and Swayimane without electricity, Eskom said.

Agro meteorologists at UKZN said they measured more than 500 lightning flashes within a 32 km radius of Swayimane High School alone. A climatologist estimates that the wind speed may have been up to 250 km/h.

A delegation led by KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala, provincial MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Sipho Hlomuka and uMgungundlovu District Municipality Mayor Thobekile Maphumulo on Wednesday visited affected families.

Humanitarian organisations and community members, meanwhile, have come together to appeal for donations. Gift of the Givers deployed its teams on site and was on Wednesday putting together aid packages.

Magma Relief Foundation also distributed food late on Wednesday.

The delegations’ visits were fast and very brief. Journalists from several media houses were following the delegation’s convoy, but by the time the reporters reached the first home where a person had been killed, the officials had handed over interim relief supplies to the family, passed their condolences and were rushing to the next family.

One resident, Bheki Mbeje, who survived the tornado after being caught in the middle of it, said he was walking home from work when he saw it twisting its way towards him.

“I could see my home but I couldn’t get there because everything was up in the air. Corrugated iron sheets and tree branches were flying up in the air. I had never seen anything like it.

“I decided to hide under a tree because I couldn’t run anywhere, it was too close for me to run. The tornado came closer and I felt things hitting me on my head and back and I fell onto the floor.

“I think I fainted because when I woke up everything had calmed down and it was drizzling. I had blood on my back. I looked towards home and there was nothing there, the whole house had collapsed,” said Mbeje, who sustained head and back injuries.

He said some of his family members were also injured but no one was killed. “The children had lumps and bruises on their heads but they’re fine. We’re all just happy to be alive; some people lost their lives.”

The talk in the village was that the tornado was caused by a mythical giant snake, inkanyamba, which was looking for a new home. “The tornado, which hid the snake, was travelling along the river and when it got to the trees it turned around and went back. Everyone knows during this time of the year these snakes search for new homes,” explained Sibongile Zuma.

Danie Barnard, the manager of the Torwoodlea Estate, a vegetable farm near Mpolweni, described the horror of taking shelter in a windowless room with his two young children while the vicious storm ravaged the farm.

Severe hail had also damaged much of the sugar cane and vegetable crops which are grown at the farm. “At about 4 pm I saw the tornado heading towards us. There was very little I could do. I grabbed my kids and took shelter in a room with no windows.

“We could hear the damage happening. We heard the roof being pulled off. There was a lot of lightning outside.”

Barnard said most of his farm has been damaged. He said he was devastated by the incident. “At first I didn’t believe my eyes when I saw the tornado. I have never experienced anything like that. I just ran for my loved ones. In that moment you don’t care about material things. We were in that room for not very long but it felt like an eternity.”

He said assessors were looking at the damage yesterday, and expected the cost to be huge. The storm left the farm without electricity and, therefore, also without water pumps.

District mayor Maphumulo said about 200 homes were destroyed by the tornado and about 18 people with moderate to severe injuries were at hospitals.

She said she would be working with uMshwathi Mayor Mandla Zondi and all other government departments and local businesses to help the affected families rebuild their homes.

Francois Engelbrecht, a professor of climatology at the University of Witwatersrand, said tornadoes were not unheard of in the country, especially over KwaZulu-Natal.

He said there would need to be an analysis to determine the strength of this one, but suspected it could have been an F3 tornado, which could mean wind speeds as high as 250 km/h.

Engelbrecht explained that the tornado likely occurred because of a mixture of air masses, where air in the low atmosphere was moist and humid, whereas the high atmosphere was cooler and drier.

The second ingredient was a clashing of wind directions, which saw wind on the Earth’s surface moving easterly, but wind about three kilometres above sea level was moving almost in the opposite direction.

“Another thing was that a big weather system called a cut-off low pressure system was moving from west to east, south of South Africa,” he said, adding that the same system was near the country when there was extreme flooding in KZN in April.

Engelbrecht said this should cause concern because it was evidence that the province was vulnerable to intense weather, adding that infrastructure is not strong enough to deal with heavy weather.

• Additional reporting by News24.

Weather hoaxes dismissed, rain set to continue 

Public  hysteria from the heavy thunderstorms on Tuesday caused two hoaxes to be spread widely on social media.

The South African Weather Service had to dismiss reports that a tornado was heading toward Harding on the South Coast.

Then false messages saying storms had caused a roof to cave in at Suncoast Casino in Durban, killing 11 people and injuring scores others, circulated on social media.

Heavy rains and thunderstorms are expected to continue throughout the week, and the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs has put disaster management teams on high alert.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  kzn tornado
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