Harare, Zimbabwe — The presidents of Mozambique and Zimbabwe returned home on Monday to deal with the effects of a powerful cyclone that has killed more than 215 people across southern Africa. Hundreds more were missing on Monday, and Mozambique's leader warned that with so many missing injured and unaccounted for, the death toll could eventually surpass 1,000.
Tens of thousands of people were cut off from roads and telephones in mainly poor, rural areas.
Cyclone Idai has affected more than 1.5 million people in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, according to the U.N. and government officials. At least 126 people had died in Mozambique and Malawi, according to the Red Cross. In Zimbabwe, 89 people have died from the floods, the country's information ministry said Monday.
As much as 90 percent of Mozambique's central port city of Beira has been damaged or destroyed by the cyclone, according to the Red Cross. Beira was battered by the cyclone, which cut off electricity, forced the airport to shut down and closed road access to the city of 500,000, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on Monday.
Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa had both left for foreign trips just as the cyclone hit their respective countries. This drew criticism from some who thought they should have stayed at home to deal with a disaster whose overwhelming magnitude has not been experienced in years.
The scale of the damage to Beira is "massive and horrifying," said Jamie LeSueur, who led a Red Cross aerial assessment of the city. The team had to view the city by helicopter because roads were flooded, he said.
"The situation is terrible. The scale of devastation is enormous. It seems that 90 percent of the area is completely destroyed," said LeSueur.
While the physical impact of Idai was beginning to emerge, the human impact was still unclear.
"Almost everything is destroyed. Communication lines have been completely cut and roads have been destroyed. Some affected communities are not accessible," said LeSueur. Video posted online by the Red Cross showed the devastation in Mozambique. The aerial video showed Beira inundated by flood waters.
The storm hit Beira late Thursday and moved westward into Zimbabwe and Malawi, affecting thousands more, particularly in eastern areas bordering Mozambique.
Zimbabwe's president was returning home from the United Arab Emirates "to make sure he is involved directly with the national response by way of relief to victims of Cyclone Idai," the information ministry said Sunday.
U.N. agencies and the Red Cross are helping with rescue efforts that include delivering food supplies and medicines by helicopter in the impoverished countries.