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Grim portent of what’s to come

Thursday.

The sky over Durban has finally cleared. For a while, when the city was buried under a two-day curtain of water, it felt like the sun would never shine again, like the deluge would never end.

Glenwood’s streets are littered with broken branches and leaves, with red soil swept from the blocks of flats by the rain left spread across the tarmac. Otherwise, there’s been little evidence of the terrifying rains.

This is old, well-resourced Durban. Roads are solid, drains are clear and foundations are deep. The rain has been nothing more than an inconvenience that added an extra day to our 12-year-old son’s Easter holiday and kept us indoors.

Other suburbs have been less fortunate.

Outside the community hall in Umlazi township’s Q Section, Durban deputy mayor Fawzia Peer’s usually immaculately coiffed hair is windswept as she outlines the municipality’s response to the two days of flooding that hammered the city, leaving hundreds homeless and claiming 70 lives, and counting.

It’s not clear yet just how many people have been left homeless and destitute by the floods. The estimate is about 1 000 people, but the city and the province still haven’t completed a full assessment of the extent of the damage.

Peer looks a little stunned, battered almost, like the city itself, which, along with parts of the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast and sections of the Eastern Cape around Port St Johns, is counting the cost, human and otherwise, of the deluge.

The eThekwini municipality did issue a couple of warnings about impending heavy weather, but it, like the rest of the lower east coast, appeared to have been more focused on Easter Monday electioneering than on preparing to deal with deadly floods.

Peer is clearly battling with the magnitude of the crisis the city has on its hands. Not only have hundreds of poor people — the bulk of them residents of shack settlements in the south of the city — been left homeless, there has been other damage too. Roads, streetlights, bridges, the stormwater system and the electricity supply have been hit hard. Streams have turned into raging rivers, leaving some areas cut off from the rest of the city.

The city’s disaster management teams have been stretched beyond their limits by the sheer number of rescues they have had to perform.

Mopping-up operations are starting and displaced people are being accommodated in halls, churches and elsewhere, with the focus now on helping them stay alive while they try to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Peer’s message is grim. The city doesn’t know what budget government has to deal with the crisis. Whatever emergency funds are released by national government in the wake of the disaster are going on rebuilding infrastructure.

The city will attend to residents of its RDP housing projects who have lost their homes, where it can. For those whose shacks have been destroyed, things are more bleak. Many of them are in areas where the city doesn’t want them living. They are likely to be assisted with relocation to more “appropriate” areas. Beyond that, the city will do what it can. In other words, they’re on their own.

It’s a sad situation and one that’s not going to get better anytime soon. Durban already has far too many people living in it. The flood of people isn’t going to stop, not as long as there are no jobs in small towns and villages around the province and in the Eastern Cape.

The city can’t cope with the influx of new people — it can’t service its existing housing lists, let alone hope to accommodate new arrivals — so the only thing people can do is continue building in places where they are vulnerable to floods and landslides.

Things could have ended up much worse, though. They have in the past. The 1987 floods in the province claimed more than 320 lives, washing away major bridges and roads up and down the KwaZulu-Natal coast. It took years for the province to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in that flood, including the bridge across the Umgeni River that was partially washed away.

I guess we were lucky this time around.

Heavy, unseasonal rains like those we have just experienced are going to happen again, more and more regularly until they become a new normal, climate change scientists say. Global warming is a reality and this city is one of those affected by it. Badly. What we saw this week was not a once-off freak of nature, but rather a terrifying picture of things to come.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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