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Dozens still missing in wake of catastrophic South Africa floods

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Durban, South Africa, torrential flooding washed away thousands of homes last week, and the death toll continues to climb. More than 400 people were killed in the storms. Dozens are still missing, and 40,000 have been displaced. John Eligon is based in South Africa for The New York Times, and he has been reporting from Durban. Thank you for joining us.

JOHN ELIGON: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: That death toll - more than 400 people - is just staggering. Why did these floods have such an impact?

ELIGON: Well, I think, Ari, what you have to look at is a lot of low-income countries and low-resource countries - the people living there, they are among the most vulnerable populations when it comes to the issues of extreme weather and severe weather systems. In Durban - in the Durban area where this happened, it's very hilly. There's a lot of rivers, and there's a lot of low-lying areas. You have folks who are living on hillsides, and these hillsides give way whenever there's just torrential rain. The sand gives way, and then you - this causes a bunch of mudslides. And these mudslides just take out these homes. And you have some people who are living in these low-lying areas. The banks of the rivers break. Those rivers overflow. And then, basically, you have these communities getting flooded away.

And I guess the one other thing I would say, too - in a lot of these communities, there are a lot of informal settlements. This means that people who cannot necessarily afford to have, you know, formal housing, they will go find any place they can get. They'll put together sort of little shack homes. And these are in some of these very dangerous areas, and they're also not very sturdy, right? So a lot of these people are very susceptible to this extreme weather.

SHAPIRO: Is there a specific person whose story you can share with us?

ELIGON: We went out to this township called Inanda. It's one of the townships north of Durban. And basically, a bridge just collapsed, right? So you're driving, and there's just this huge gaping hole in the highway, right? There's a little community right down there. And these are homes that are sort of modest kind of homes made of cement, bricks and whatnot. And we talked to residents. And what happened that night is they said, out of nowhere, it just, like, started raining at 10 o'clock. By 11, 12 o'clock, it was just completely torrential downpour. And then this one woman we spoke to, she had some relatives living in a house right across the pathway from her. It's a little pathway they run across. She starts to go across there to warn her relatives. And before she could get to the house, the water is up - you know, up to her chest, basically. So she cannot get to their house.

And think about it. This is nighttime. And all she can hear is her family members inside saying, what do we do? What do we do? And sadly, she said, within a matter of minutes, water comes through. It levels the house. The house - this is a brick house. It's completely gone. So it was a mother and a son and then two of the woman's granddaughters, all of them are believed to be buried under that sand. And there was - that is just one of many stories like that that we're hearing all across that region there. It's just completely heartbreaking.

SHAPIRO: You report that this was the third major flooding in the region in the past five years. Are people drawing a connection to climate change?

ELIGON: Absolutely. I mean, there's a lot of scientists who are saying that it's the increasing intensity of these storms, right? Rain in April in Durban, in that area, is not that uncommon. But what some people are saying is uncommon is just sort of the intensity of these things, that every, you know, year now, it seems to be some sort of flooding event. And I think you can't just isolate it. You have to look at sort of that region - so southern Africa, eastern Africa as a whole, right? If you look at a place like Madagascar, in February and March, they were hit by a cyclone and I think four tropical storms. At least 178 people were killed in those. And you're seeing in Mozambique they've had flooding come in. And as far inland as Malawi and Zimbabwe, both landlocked countries, they're having flooding.

So there's this sense that - you know, with the rise in temperatures, with more moisture in the air, that there is this greater intensity of these storms. And with the particular situation in Durban, it was something that - a phenomenon called the cutoff low in which, basically, you have a low-pressure system that was cut off from the jet stream, so it just kind of sat there on top of Durban, you know, for several days, just bringing down rain and rain and rain. And that's what really caused this.

SHAPIRO: That's John Eligon of The New York Times, speaking with us from South Africa. Thank you very much.

ELIGON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.