Cyclone Batsirai nears Madagascar, ‘widespread damage’ feared

Cyclone Batsirai is set to hit eastern Madagascar after passing Mauritius and La Reunion

Powerful Cyclone Batsirai was closing in on eastern Madagascar Saturday as residents sought secure shelter or reinforced their roofs with sandbags after warnings that “widespread damage” was feared.

Batsirai is expected to lash the eastern parts of the cyclone-prone Indian ocean island with powerful winds and torrential rains at around 8pm (1700 GMT) on Saturday, according to the country’s national weather forecasters.

By that time, the wind speed is forecast to be 165 kilometres per hour (102 miles per hour).

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The Meteo-France weather service had earlier warned of winds of up to 260 kilometres per hour (162 miles per hour) and waves as high as 15 metres (50 feet).

Residents hunkered down before the storm made landfall in the impoverished country still recovering from the deadly Tropical Storm Ana late last month.

In the eastern coastal town of Vatomandry more than 200 people were crammed in one room in a Chinese-owned concrete building while waiting for Batsirai to hit.

Community leader Thierry Louison Leaby lamented the lack of clean water after the water utility company turned off supplies ahead of the cyclone.

Outside plastic dishes and buckets were placed in a line to catch rainwater dripping from the corrugated roofing sheets.

Residents who chose to remain in their homes used sandbags and yellow jerrycans to buttress their roofs.

“We have been stocking up for a week, rice but also grains because with the electricity cuts we can not keep meat or fish,” said Odette Nirina, 65, a hotelier in Vatomandry.

Gusts of winds of more than 50km/h pummelled Vatomandry Saturday morning, accompanied by intermittent rain.

The United Nations said it was ramping up its preparedness with aid agencies, placing rescue aircraft on standby and stockpiling humanitarian supplies.

At least 131,000 people were affected by Ana across Madagascar in late January. At least 58 people were killed, mostly in the capital Antananarivo. The storm also hit Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, causing dozens of deaths.

“We are very nervous,” Pasqualina Di Sirio, who heads the WFP’s programme in Madagascar, told reporters by video-link from the island.

Inland in Ampasipotsy Gare, sitting on top of his house, Tsarafidy Ben Ali, a 23-year-old coal seller, held down corrugated iron sheets on the roof with large bags filled with soil.

The storm poses a risk to at least 4.4 million people in one way or another, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

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