“In the case of an emergency, break glass.”
This is a saying we all know and has been engrained into our minds. When there is an emergency, you need a clear execution programme. You need both urgency and agency.
However, what is the evacuation plan in the case of a mudslide in Umlazi in Durban or a fire in Langa in Cape Town? That course of action is not clear. With the climate crisis morphing into a climate disaster, it is important that we start drilling into people’s heads what needs to be done in such circumstances. We could save so many lives if we systematically did monthly drills.
As I type this reflection, I am in a plane. The cabin crew is taking us through a mandatory safety drill in case of an unlikely event.
There are likely going to be more mudslides, floods and fires than there are going to be plane crashes. I am more prepared for a plane crash.
With each passing day after the KwaZulu-Natal floods, the rescuers quickly turned from rescuing to recovering bodies and not saving lives. During the first week at the Virginia Airport rescue operations centre in Durban, there were at best five or six helicopters.
The SA Air Force made up a majority, including a workhorse and an Atlas Oryx helicopter. The SA Police Service (SAPS) rescue team had a couple of helicopters and several rescue divers.
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These heroes diligently went out every day on rescue missions despite being underresourced and they did so with no fanfare. They rescued hundreds of people who had gone to bed the night before only to wake up on the riverbed the next morning.
Communities were displaced by the force of the water. Overnight, the N2 highway became a river that flushed away 12m high containers, trucks, cars, houses, trees and people. Shipping containers were wrapped around bridges like candy wrappers.
A mother, father and six-month-old baby had their car capsized. They perished along with an SAPS rescue diver and her rescue dog. A family of 10 was buried by the landslides. To date, about 446 deaths have been reported.
Bodies were being plucked from trees, such was the height of the floods in some areas. I kept thinking where is the Calvary? Why was this not declared a national disaster sooner? The floods stretched as far as the Eastern Cape.
During the first week at the Virginia Airport rescue and operations centre, there was no press coverage. Then again, it was Easter Weekend, perhaps people had gone away on holiday. What I was seeing was definitively not what was being covered by the mass media or even social media. The scale of and how widespread the damage was were underreported.
I sit on the board of an amazing food rescue organisation called SA Harvest. While SA Harvest’s core mandate is to rescue food that would have gone to waste from retailers, manufacturers and farmers to give to communities in their time of need, we faced a unique challenge this time around.
We simply could not get to some of our beneficiaries in KwaZulu-Natal. It was still raining and the bridges had collapsed along with some major roads which had massive sinkholes. It was too dangerous. People were in the dark as the power substations were underwater and there was no drinking water.
As more days went by, President Cyril Ramaphosa finally declared a national state of emergency, and the very next day we started seeing more people arrive at the operations centre, including the army.
What was surprising was that they came with guns instead of shovels, buckets, underwear, socks, toiletries, first aid packs and food which were in short supply. Body bags became a common sight. I had no clue that body bags were blue, I thought the blue ones were meant to distinguish them from the black refuse bags.
At this stage, the operations centre was a hive of activity. But, I still couldn’t help but wonder why the response to this emergency took so long? How many lives could have been saved if clear and decisive action had been taken immediately?
During a food distribution drive in Umlazi, a man ran up to me to show me his house that was destroyed by the mudslide. The one side was missing. He told me that every time it rains, the mudslides occur. I asked: “Wait, you mean this is nothing new?”
He said: “Yes, it happens all the time when there are heavy rains, but this particular one was just sustained.”
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Shocked by this discovery, I blurted out: “Well then, why don’t you leave this place?”
He looked me dead in the eye and responded: “And go where?”
I kept quiet and we continued handing out food.
Another unexpected challenge was that the farmers we relied on had most of their produce destroyed. This had a dire impact on our supply chain. Thankfully, our retail partners came forward to assist. Interestingly, citizens donated a lot of clothing too, but no underwear or socks, and understandably so.
I would like to thank every citizen who donated food, toiletries and clothing. We had private donors who gave money too and we appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts. Thank you.
By the time the president finally declared the KwaZulu-Natal floods a national climate crisis disaster, it was a little too late as lives had already been lost.
Brazil and the Philippines suffered a similar challenge just months ago. This occurrence will continue to be widespread and it will possibly happen more frequently.
The people at the bottom of the pyramid will continue to pay with their lives for our collective climate crisis sins. As people move from rural areas to cities, which have no space to house them, they will continue to live on hillsides, removing trees and vegetation that would, ironically, have saved their lives.
They will continue to live on top of each other in the townships such as Langa, where a fire spreads in a blink.
First, we should stop this from happening again. We will clean up and put a plaster on the cancerous sore. Chemotherapy is long, painful and not a cool treatment. The cancer has already spread. We are left only with two options. If we cannot fix the climate crisis or move the people from its effects, let us at least prepare them better for the next calamity.
After the tsunami in Thailand in 2004, early warning systems were set up to warn the people should it occur again. We need to do the same for all overpopulated areas, including Umlazi and Langa.
Second, we need to organise mandatory drills for such eventualities. We need to measure the reaction times of the communities as well as the rescue services.
If we cannot fix the problem, let us at least be better prepared for it.
Miles Kubheka is a board member of SA Harvest.