More than 1,000 feared dead in Mozambique cyclone, damage 'massive and horrifying'

As much as 90 per cent of Mozambique's central port city of Beira has been damaged or destroyed by tropical Cyclone Idai, according to the Red Cross.

Beira a scene of devastation, while Malawi, Zimbabwe also suffered Idai's wrath

A woman is seen making her way Sunday to a school building being used as an emergency shelter for some 300 local people who were unable to return to their homes following cyclone force winds and heavy rain in the coastal city of Beira, Mozambique. ((Josh Estey/CARE/Associated Press)

More than 1,000 people were feared dead in Mozambique four days after a cyclone slammed into the country, submerging entire villages and leaving bodies floating in the floodwaters, the nation's president said.

"It is a real disaster of great proportions," President Filipe Nyusi said.

Cyclone Idai could prove to be the deadliest storm in generations to hit the impoverished southeast African country of 30 million people.

It struck Beira, an Indian Ocean port city of a half-million people, late Thursday and then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi with strong winds and heavy rain. But it took days for the scope of the disaster to come into focus in Mozambique, which has a poor communications and transportation network and a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.

Relatives of people killed in the storm sit beside family members' coffins outside St Thomas Catholic church as they wait for transport to the grave site in Ngangu township, Chimanimani. (Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images)

As much as 90 per cent of Beira has been damaged or destroyed, according to the Red Cross.

Speaking on state Radio Mozambique, Nyusi said that while the official death toll stood at 84, "It appears that we can register more than 1,000 deaths."

Emergency officials cautioned that while they expect the death toll to rise significantly, they have no way of knowing if it will reach the president's estimate.

More than 215 people were confirmed killed by the storm in the three countries, including more than 80 in Zimbabwe's eastern Chimanimani region, according to official figures. Hundreds more were reported missing and nearly 1,000 homes destroyed in eastern Zimbabwe alone.

Nyusi spoke after flying over the port city of Beira and viewing the flooding and devastation. 

This image made available by International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on Monday shows an aerial view from a helicopter of flooding in Beira, Mozambique. (Caroline Haga/IFRC/Associated Press)

"The waters of the Pungue and Buzi rivers overflowed, making whole villages disappear and isolating communities, and bodies are floating," said Nyusi. "It is a real disaster of great proportions."

With Beira's airport closed, the Red Cross team drove from Mozambique's capital Maputo before taking a helicopter for the last part of the journey because roads into Beira have been flooded.

Some communities not accessible

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 human toll may not be known for days or weeks, but Mozambique's president believes more than 1,000 people may be dead. (Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images)

While the physical impact of Idai is beginning to emerge, the human impact is unclear.

"Almost everything is destroyed. Communication lines have been completely cut and roads have been destroyed. Some affected communities are not accessible," said LeSueur.

"Beira has been severely battered. But we are also hearing that the situation outside the city could be even worse. Yesterday [Sunday], a large dam burst and cut off the last road to the city."

Mozambique is a long, narrow country with a 2,400-kilometre coastline along the Indian Ocean. It is prone to cyclones and tropical storms this time of year.

The location of Beira, a key transportation hub and city of about 500,000 in Mozambique, is highlighted. The cyclone and its remnants have also proven deadly in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

In 2000, Mozambique was hit by severe flooding caused by weeks of heavy rain, a disaster made much worse when a cyclone hit. Approximately 700 people were killed in what was regarded as the worst flooding in 50 years.

Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975 and then was plagued by a long-running civil war that ended in 1992. Its economy is dominated by agriculture, and its exports include prawns, cotton, cashews, sugar, coconuts and tropical hardwood timber.

Dozens dead in Malawi, Zimbabwe

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.

Nyusi and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa both returned from foreign trips to attend to the emergencies caused by the storm. State radio in Mozambique had reported that Nyusi planned to visit affected areas after returning Sunday from Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland.

A boy walks on Friday through a maize field destroyed by floods in Chikwawa district, southern Malawi. Dozens of deaths in the southeast Africa country have been attributed to Idai. (Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty Images)

Zimbabwe's president returned 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. The Zimbabwean government declared a state of national disaster.

UN agencies and the Red Cross are helping with rescue efforts that include delivering food supplies and medicines by helicopter in the impoverished countries.

With files from Reuters