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Madagascar Cyclone Death Toll Continues to Climb - 2004-03-12

The death toll in Madagascar from a tropical cyclone keeps climbing. More than 50 people are now reported killed, and more than 160 are still missing. Aid agencies are struggling to help people stranded by floodwaters in remote areas.

Cyclone Gafilo is believed to have been one of the strongest tropical storms to occur in the southwestern Indian Ocean in 50 years. It hit Madagascar twice, causing widespread devastation on two separate parts of the island, killing scores of people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

The storm first rampaged across northeastern Madagascar, and then crossed over into the Mozambique Channel, where it gained strength before turning around and heading back to batter the southwestern coast.

World Food Program spokesman Michael Huggins has just toured the cyclone-hit town of Antalaha, which took the brunt of the storm when it first hit the island on Sunday.

"To the south of Antalaha, there are areas that are completely cut off to the outside world," he said. "They are islands surrounded by a sea of floodwater. Much of the area is totally devastated. There is barely a house or a hut that has not been damaged. There were 14 people killed in that area where the cyclone first struck, and, nationally, the government is saying there are 100,000 people that have been affected by the cyclone."

There is still very little information about the situation in the southwest. Aid agencies are battling to reach people who are stranded in remote parts of the island, which can be hard to reach even in the best of circumstances. In addition to immediate needs of food and shelter, there are also concerns about possible outbreaks of water-borne disease in the disaster zones. But Mr. Huggins says help is gradually arriving.

"Well, the French military, together with [the relief organization] Care and the Red Cross are distributing food by helicopter and by boat," he said. "The World Food Program has given about 260 tons of food to that area, 200 tons of rice and 60 tons of corn-soya blend, which is for those who have gone for several days without eating. There are grave concerns of health consequences, of cholera outbreaks, of dysentery. The Red Cross and the French government are moving quite fast to move in water purification systems that would be capable of giving clean water to up to 10,000 people a day. So, things are on the move. There is a humanitarian response, and the people of Madagascar, we hope, will soon begin to receive that aid."

The tally of the death toll at this point does not include more than 110 passengers aboard a ferry that disappeared off the northwestern coast during the storm, and which is believed to have sunk. Only two people are known to have survived, and they say they saw the boat go under. But some Malagasy officials are reluctant to give up the search for survivors, and its passengers are still officially listed as missing, not dead. The ferry was on its way to Madagascar from the nearby Comoros islands, where the government has declared a period of official mourning for the victims.