JIM LEHRER: The Mozambique flood tragedy: We begin our coverage with a report from Robert Moore of Independent Television News.
ROBERT MOORE: On a tiny inflatable boat almost lost in the vast floodwaters, a team of local officials set out to try and find their village -- a community that appears to have vanished without trace. Immediately they run into problems, having to bail out water. And instead, they become stranded in a neighboring village of Margomahani. It, too, lies utterly devastated and despite the receding waters, it is largely submerged.
Out here vast sways of the Limpopo River Valley remain under water and inaccessible. But to our astonishment we spotted one family still living utterly marooned in the trees. They appeared to be hiding and were terrified, taking refuge in the hollow of the tree. We called in rescue forces to pluck them to safety, but by tonight no one had reached this spot.
Slowly on the tiny islands of high ground emerging from the water, the survivors of this disaster are trying against all the odds to rebuild their life. Their best and perhaps only hope is the accelerating international aid effort.
JIM LEHRER: Some people have returned to their villages. Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports from one of them.
LINDSEY HILSUM: This was one of the smartest houses in Chockway. It's owned by a local government official. Hard to imagine people living here, watching television, cooking, sleeping. Who knows how long it will take to clear up the mess. The big man is paying these women the equivalent of three pounds each to do the job. Such work is welcomed. Vilijimana Mashava is a widow with four children. Her flimsy house was almost swept away by the surge of water which hit this town. She and her family are virtually destitute now.
WOMAN: (Speaking through interpreter) I don't have any food. I'm sleeping on the street now because I don't have a house. My house is badly damaged. I'm doing this work so I can make a bit of money to buy some food.
LINDSEY HILSUM: There was a little food for sale in Chockway this morning, but prices have doubled. The traders have to bring it in from a nearby town which escaped flooding, but the road is only just being mended and transport is scarce.
Many of Chockway's men leave here to work in the gold fields of South Africa. We walked into town and found some miners' wives scavenging for rotting rice. They haven't been able to contact their husbands they said. They have no money, their babies have been sick with fever and diarrhea. But they'll get by as best they can.
A public health announcement: Don't drink the water, purification tablets will be provided. The man with the megaphone is from the governing party, Filimo. People seem to be coping alone or with a little help from foreigners.
More rain is predicted so aid workers have advised people not to return home until the weather's settled. But there's already been some looting in Chockway, so anyone with anything in their house wants to be there to protect it. The people are going home -- no matter how difficult the journey. No matter what they might find when they get there.
MARGARET WARNER: For an assessment of how the relief effort is going, we turn to Christopher Thomas, a disaster and communications official for the American Red Cross, one of the many private relief groups aiding flood victims in Mozambique. He joins us from the capital, Maputo.
We here there are a million people in need of aid in Mozambique right now. Where are they and what kind of conditions are they living in?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: The floodwaters that raged through Mozambique caused enormous devastation and destruction, covering some 30 percent of the country in water. Imagine if 30 percent of the United States was flooded. It's just immense. Some 250,000 people are displaced, and they're gathered in some 68 makeshift camps in many different regions. The American Red Cross, in cooperation with several national societies, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cross societies flew into some of the hardest-hit areas, Chibuto and Chichi, the other day to provide a detailed assessment, and also to set up distribution systems. And what we saw was terrible: People living out in the open on the ground, without shelter, without adequate food, no medical supplies, people bathing and drinking the stagnant, polluted water. It really was disturbing.
MARGARET WARNER: And what percentage of these displaced people would you say are children?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: You know in the riverbank camp in Chibuto, we were greeted by hundreds and hundreds of small children. Many families in this area and maybe throughout Mozambique are very large, and some of the families have six to ten children, ranging from the ages of newborns to 12 years old. And the young are so susceptible to disease, and, you know, nutrition is very important. And getting, you know, food and clean water and medicines to all the affected areas is vital.
MARGARET WARNER: Now we just saw a tape that showed at least one family still stranded in a tree with the water still up. Are there still a lot of people left in the trees or these isolated spots of high ground?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Yes, we did a low-level fly-over in several areas, and found hundreds of people who have decided to shelter in place and homestead in the hopes that the floodwaters will recede. They have refused search and rescue, and in fact, we can see them going underneath the water to retrieve crops and then bring them out to dry. I can't imagine how they're surviving in such terrible conditions, but they are. And you can understand people wanting to stay near their homes and hoping that the floodwaters will recede so they can go back to their normal lives. And planting season begins April 1, and so this is a vital time for these people.
MARGARET WARNER: But when you say homestead in place, do you mean they're literally homesteading in the trees?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Many, many people had built makeshift homes within trees. And there are several areas that dot the terrain that are not covered by water, and they found their way there. And we saw, gathered, groups of two to fifteen.
MARGARET WARNER: So give us a sense of how much food aid and clean water aid you need every day to get to these people.
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Well, the World Food Program was delivering, I believe, 120 metric tons of food to the affected people. You know, the Red Cross today airlifted much-needed supplies: Tents, and tarps, and kitchen sets, and jerry cans into three of the hardest-hit areas: Mesia, Chocilana, and Chokwe. And tomorrow, we're going back into Chibutu, where we provided the detail assessment.. And while we were there, we met with the village elders, and the community leaders, and the people who were affected, and got their support to help in the distribution method, because many supplies are here, but unless you set up a distribution mechanism, people won't have the food or the clean water. And we're going in tomorrow, being ferried by helicopter, with much-needed supplies and we'll be working with the local beneficiaries to displace people to ensure that aid... their aid requirements are met, and the most vulnerable are taken care of.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, tell us a little more about the difficulties in distribution. Do you have to do most of this by air? Do you have the helicopters you need? And do you have the logistics on the ground to get it to people?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Well, it's been a very difficult process, with so many people affected, with so many overwhelming and immediate needs, it has been challenging. But there's a large contingent here of airplanes and helicopters from across the world, and they are providing airlift service, and we are utilizing it, and I know many other agencies are, as well. And as we flew into Chibuto yesterday, we saw dozens of helicopters and other planes flying into other areas with assessment teams and relief supplies. So while the aid might not be reaching the people as quickly as we would like, we understand that there's an urgent need to get supplies in many areas. We are moving very fast, considering the circumstances.
MARGARET WARNER: What is the health situation?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: That, you know... there is cause for grave concern. Many of the people, as I said, are drinking and bathing in polluted and terrible water. And we've seen outbreaks, we've seen cases of cholera, and malaria, and conjunctivitis. And, you know, cholera is endemic through many of the regions here, so it is a very sharp concern, but at the same time, there has not been a sharp rise in the number of cases that would lead people to believe that there's an epidemic on hand. But believe me, the conditions are ripe for one. And it's taking a coordinated effort to ensure that the medicines reach the most vulnerable of the people in all the affected areas.
MARGARET WARNER: How much of a window time-wise do you think you have, that is, to get at least clean water and some food to people and some medicines, before the health situation would become really serious?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Well, again, we're working daily with relief flights going out, and providing these supplies. Today we had flights going into three different areas. Tomorrow we will continue that. We have water sanitation engineers going through, province by province, to determine how to rehabilitate the water sources and to identify new water sources. Whether it's distributing chlorine tablets or digging new wells, they're working very hard. Many of the people here in Mozambique are used to having poor water, and their immune systems are very high, so that might also explain why there hasn't been, necessarily, an outbreak or epidemic of sorts, because they are so used to having poor water quality. But we're going to work very hard with Mozambique Red Cross Society, and many of the other societies, the national societies here, like the Germans, and the British, and the Canadians, and the Dutch, to make sure that there are clean water systems and people have access to clean water throughout the affected areas.
MARGARET WARNER: I know you're right in the middle of this, and you may not be able to answer this question, but do you know what it is you all still need from the international community that you don't have enough of?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Well, I believe the international community has been very forthright, and there are many supplies here. The American Red Cross is sending a plane load of supplies from Atlanta this week filled with tents and jerry cans and clean-up kits. And the clean-up kits will be absolutely vital during this process. And with so many people displaced without shelter, these tropical tents are going to be invaluable, as well. So, you know, we're getting the supplies here. The best way people can help is with financial contributions. This is a very extensive effort that's going to take months, and possibly even years. Right now we're still in the emergency phase. We're not even talking about the rehabilitation phase. So I would urge Americans to make a financial contribution by calling 1-800-HELP-NOW, and earmarking their donations to the American Red Cross International Response Fund for Mozambique.
MARGARET WARNER: We also understand that the U.N. relief agencies on the ground are urging these displaced people not to try to go home, at least if they lived in the flood zone. Can you explain why, and are people complying with that?
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Well, many people want to go home, they want to see what, you know, what's left of their homes, they want to get on with their lives. Floodwaters are receding in many areas, but that said, it's still not safe. There are heavy rains hitting Mozambique today, the rains hitting in Zimbabwe for the rivers that flow eastward will flow into the already, you know, saturated tributaries. And the tropical storm, now downgraded, that hit South Africa might surge waters northward. So we're still not out of the woods. And this is the rainy season. We can expect more rain. So it's very advisable for people not to go back yet, or they could get swept in floods. I was talking with one woman who said the flash floods caught her family so much by surprise that when she opened her front door, the waters carried her and her family outside of her home. So we have to be very careful about, you know, having people go back to their homes, or to where they used to live, before it's safe.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, Christopher Thomas, thank you so much, and good luck.
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: Thank you for having me.