‘Socorro’ – ‘Help’: UJ’s first responder to Cyclone Idai shares his experience

​Mr Abrie Senekal, Emergency Care Practitioner from the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Department of Emergency Medical Care within the Faculty of Health Science, shares the harrowing experience of being one of the first responders as Cyclone Idai made landfall.

I never thought reporting for a clinical road shift on Wednesday 13 March 2019 was the start of a sudden life changing rescue disaster response with Rescue South Africa. I volunteered to deploy as part of a small experienced and dedicated team of rescuers to render assistance to the affected people of Beira, Mozambique.


The rainy three days of travel over potholed filled and partially destroyed roads, lugging close to 3 tons of equipment, made us realize that the worse was still to come as we neared Beira. The last 400 km stretch from Vilanculos to Beira took our convoy well over 13 hours. We constantly stopped to clear the road of fallen trees and debris.

On arrival at Sena Hotel in Beira on the Friday night, 15 March, we were awestruck by the destructive force of Cylcone Idai. No infrastructure, including all communication means, was left untouched. We very quickly realized the magnitude of this disaster our team of only 15 members were about to face.

The next 9 days marked a series of unexpected events we had to face and manage. Firstly, we had to clear the inaccessible 3km road to the Beira airport, which became the base where all rescue coordination and operations were tasked from. Whilst still busy with this, focus immediately shifted to an aquatic rescue where a dam wall had burst. That night our team entered treacherous currents to row out to people shouting for help from trees in the dark. The number of people calling out for help far outweighed our capacity. With commitment and a common purpose, we rescued as many people as we could before the conditions became too dangerous to continue.

Much needed air support only arrived 2 days later, at which point we were able to commence with air rescue and relief operations. Again, our focus, given the limited resources, was to do the most for the most. Heartbreakingly, this meant that some people would be left to their own fate.

The magnitude of this disaster is difficult to fathom and the remnants of Cyclone Idai will still be felt for months and years to come by the people of Mozambique. Having said this, I feel very privileged and honored to have been part of the Rescue South Africa team that assisted the people of Mozambique. I wish to thank the faculty for having the confidence in my abilities and releasing me to participate in this disaster response.

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Abrie Senekal
Mr Abrie Senekal
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