Freddy, the cyclone of all records, foreshadowing the future in southern Africa

At the end of a crazy race of more than 10,000 km traveled over a record duration of thirty-five days, Cyclone Freddy turned into a "moderate" tropical storm on Sunday, March 12, above southern Malawi

Freddy, the cyclone of all records, foreshadowing the future in southern Africa

At the end of a crazy race of more than 10,000 km traveled over a record duration of thirty-five days, Cyclone Freddy turned into a "moderate" tropical storm on Sunday, March 12, above southern Malawi. Strong winds and heavy rains were deemed still threatening enough to justify the suspension of air links and the closure of schools in several districts of the country. On Monday, a state of disaster was declared in several southern regions, including that of the economic capital, Blantyre.

The trajectory of the phenomenon, which meteorologists were quick to call a "monster" in the days following its formation in the Timor Sea on February 6, remains uncertain. Freddy could die on land or venture for the third time in the Mozambique Channel. A further intensification of the cyclone, favored by the crossing of warm ocean waters, is not, however, a favored hypothesis. At least 85 dead have been counted so far.

Anyway, Freddy most certainly won the title of longest cyclone ever observed, the previous record being held by John, in 1994, in the Pacific Ocean (thirty-one days). The World Meteorological Organization commissioned a commission of experts to confirm this after taking into account its intermittent drops in power. According to the US Agency for Oceanic and Atmospheric Observation, Freddy also shattered power records by generating as much energy as an average North Atlantic hurricane season.

Winds greater than 220 km/h

Finally, its loop trajectory, after having crossed the Indian Ocean from east to west in an unprecedented way, makes it an unprecedented object in the eyes of scientists. “This event is completely unique. There is no equivalent of a cyclone having affected inhabited land four times with significant impacts", observes Emmanuel Cloppet, director of Météo-France for the Indian Ocean, in charge of hurricane watch for the fifteen Zone states.

Freddy first struck Madagascar on February 21, crossed the island and then the Mozambique Channel, reaching the southern coast of the Portuguese-speaking country three days later. He then turned around and came along the south-west of Madagascar in the Atsimo-Andrefana region on March 5, before returning to the Mozambican province of Zambézia. On several occasions, Freddy was able to recharge his energy and moisture over the seas and was classified as a "very intense tropical cyclone", with winds greater than 220 km/h.

The amount of rainfall received in a month by Mozambique has exceeded what it usually receives in a year and the evolution over the coming days will be carefully scrutinized. "In 2019, more than the strength of the winds, it was the rains released in the wake of Cyclone Idai that caused the most victims: around a thousand deaths, the biggest regional disaster of the decade", recalls Mr. Cloppet.

The results in the two main countries crossed are already considerable. In Madagascar, nearly 200,000 people have been affected and 72,000 have been displaced. In the eastern region of Vatovavy, where Freddy first landed, 700 classrooms were destroyed, 70,000 children were deprived of schooling and 10,000 huts were razed.

A permanent humanitarian theater

A year ago, Cyclone Batsirai had already severely ravaged the coastal strip up to the high central plateau. The repetition of natural disasters has transformed the region into a permanent humanitarian theater. "In a region so landlocked and plagued by chronic food insecurity, it is impossible to repair the damage of such a disaster in such a short time", notes Colonel Faly, coordinator of the National Office for Risk and Disaster Management , lamenting that misfortunes add up.

In Mozambique, 170,000 people were affected and more than 50,000 hectares of crops were destroyed or flooded during Freddy's first pass, just as harvest was about to start. The report of the second episode has not yet been published due to communications still cut off, but "it will certainly be heavier because the Zambézia region is both less developed and more populated", anticipates Hugo Reichenberger, of the High Commission United Nations for Refugees. Early estimates from satellite images indicate more than 90,000 hectares of flooded land. Fears are directed towards the health situation, with significant risks of the spread of cholera. Some 8,000 cases have already been identified in the past few weeks.

This extraordinary cyclone could foreshadow the future, and this is the most worrying. All the ingredients are there to fuel the power of these "thermal engines". "We don't know if there will be more cyclones in the future, but there is a strong consensus that they will be more intense, even very intense, thanks to the combined effects of rising temperatures in the water, air, and the expansion of areas with tropical climatic characteristics,” says Cloppet. The need to improve prevention and early warning systems to protect populations seems all the more urgent.