Madagascar: Alert for Cyclone Batsirai

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Some 600,000 people could be affected by Cyclone Batsirai in Madagascar, days after Tropical Storm Ana left tens of thousands homeless.

"The United Nations and our humanitarian partners are stepping up preparations for Tropical Cyclone Batsirai, which is expected to make landfall in Madagascar this weekend after passing through Mauritius," said a spokesman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Jens Laerke. The impact of Cyclone Batsirai is expected to be "considerable", he said, including in areas still recovering from Cyclone Ana.

In January, Cyclone Ana and other heavy rains left 55 people dead and 131,000 homeless in Madagascar. About 15,000 people have not yet been able to return to their homes, according to the National Office for Risk and Disaster Management. Batsirai (which means help in the Shona language) could be even more destructive.

Cyclone season

"We have to be very vigilant," General Elack Andriankaja, director-general of the National Office for Risk and Disaster Management, said Thursday. "The capital will not be spared (...). We have already warned residents to leave risky areas, such as river and sea banks..."

Every year during the cyclone season (November to April), about ten low-pressure systems (storms or cyclones) cross the southwestern Indian Ocean from east to west. According to Pasqualina Di Sirio, director of the World Food Programme (WFP) for Madagascar, the new cyclone could affect more than 600,000 people, including 150,000 displaced on the island. "This is a major crisis," she told reporters.

Stockpiles of supplies

Under the leadership of the authorities, the UN is preparing for the cyclone, pre-deploying search and rescue teams and preparing stockpiles of supplies, while aircraft are ready to move in as soon as needed to support the humanitarian response.

In the capital Antananarivo, many low-lying neighbourhoods that were flooded in January are expecting further flooding as the cyclone approaches. We now have to prepare for many more people than before," said Ranto Rakotonjanahary, director-general of the Antananarivo Plain Flood Protection Authority.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which estimates that some 4.4 million people are at risk in some way, is also mobilized. "Malagasy Red Cross teams and partners are on alert and are being deployed to communities to warn them of the approaching storm, while emergency stocks are being moved to facilitate access," explained its secretary-general Andoniaina Ratsimamanga.

Coastal evacuation

Batsirai is expected to hit the eastern coast of Madagascar, including the Mahanoro region, Meteo-France said, possibly still at the stage of an intense tropical cyclone. "We are all preparing for the cyclone, with the reinforcement of the roofs. We are using the radio to warn people who live near the sea. These people have to leave now," said Captain Achille Rakotomavo, commander of the Vatamondry gendarmerie group.

"It will start to have impacts today, with waves at sea of 8 to 15 metres high. A storm surge of up to 1.50m in height is possible in the most affected coastal areas," with risks of coastal flooding, said a spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), Clare Nullis.

"To prepare for the cyclone, people are putting sandbags on the roofs of their houses. Fishermen are not going out to sea anymore," said Asmina Baonantenaina, a resident of Tamatave, Madagascar's second-largest city and port. "We live 200 metres from the beach, and we have reinforced our backyard fence," she says. Located on the island's east coast, 340 km east of Antananarivo, Tamatave is expected to be the first centre affected by Batsirai.

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