'Widespread damage' feared as Cyclone Batsirai hits Madagascar
Cyclone Batsirai struck Madagascar's eastern region on Saturday with strong winds and heavy rain, the second storm to hit the island nation in just a few weeks, a senior meteorologist said.
Batsirai made landfall in Mananjary district, more than 530 kilometres (310 miles) southeast of the capital Antananarivo, amid warnings of "widespread damage".
"I confirm that Batsirai hit Mananjary at about 8 pm (1700 GMT) local time," meteorologist Lovandrainy Ratovoharisoa told AFP by phone, but gave no further details.
The national meteorological office had earlier forecast winds of up to 165 kilometres per hour (102 miles per hour).
"Significant and widespread damage is therefore feared," it warned.
The Meteo-France weather service, meanwhile, had warned of winds of up to 260 kilometres per hour (162 miles per hour) and waves as high as 15 metres (50 feet).
It had predicted Batsirai would make landfall as an intense tropical cyclone, "presenting a very serious threat to the area" after passing Mauritius and drenching the French island of La Reunion with torrential rain for two days.
In the hours before the cyclone hit, residents hunkered down in the impoverished country, still recovering from the deadly Tropical Storm Ana late last month.
- 'Cooking with dirty water' -
In the eastern coastal town of Vatomandry, more than 200 people were crammed in one room in a Chinese-owned concrete building.
Families slept on mats or mattresses.
Community leader Thierry Louison Leaby lamented the lack of clean water after the water utility compan turned off supplies ahead of the cyclone.
"People are cooking with dirty water," he said, amid fears of a diarrhoea outbreak.
Outside plastic dishes and buckets were placed in a line to catch rainwater dripping from the corrugated roofing sheets.
"The government must absolutely help us. We have not been given anything," he said.
Residents who chose to remain in their homes used sandbags and yellow jerrycans to buttress their roofs.
Other residents of Vatomandry were stockpiling supplies in preparation for the storm.
"We have been stocking up for a week, rice but also grains because with the electricity cuts we cannot keep meat or fish," said Odette Nirina, 65, a hotelier in Vatomandry.
"I have also stocked up on coal. Here we are used to cyclones," she told AFP.
Winds of more than 50 kilometres per hour (30 miles per hour) pummelled Vatomandry Saturday morning, accompanied by intermittent rain.
- 'Very nervous' -
The United Nations said it was ramping up its preparedness with aid agencies, placing rescue aircraft on standby and stockpiling humanitarian supplies.
The impact of Batsirai on Madagascar is expected to be "considerable", Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN's humanitarian organisation OCHA, told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
At least 131,000 people were affected by Ana across Madagascar in late January. At least 58 people were killed, mostly in the capital Antananarivo.
That storm also hit Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, causing dozens of deaths.
The UN's World Food Programme pointed to estimates from national authorities that some 595,000 people could be directly affected by Batsirai, and 150,000 more might be displaced due to new landslides and flooding.
"We are very nervous," Pasqualina Di Sirio, who heads the WFP operation in Madagascar, told reporters by video-link from the island.
Search and rescue teams have been placed on alert.
Inland in the town of Ampasipotsy Gare, sitting on top of his house, Tsarafidy Ben Ali, a 23-year-old coal seller, held down corrugated iron sheets on the roof with large bags filled with soil.
The storm poses a risk to at least 4.4 million people in one way or another, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.