Mitigating the Impact of Natural Disasters

In the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Idai which hit the eastern coast of Africa in March, Zanelle Furusa and students at Africa University are working to ensure a better future for the entire planet.

The winds and rain from the storm that formed in the Indian Ocean killed more than 1,200 people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Malawi. Furusa, a lecturer at United Methodist-related Africa University in Zimbabwe, was quick to visit the devastation in Kopa, a town located approximately 110 miles south of the school’s campus in Mutare.

Dr. Zanele Furusa spoke about her ongoing work to help communities cope with the impact of natural disasters.“What was unique about the cyclone is that it hit Kopa in the night, between 9 p.m. and 12 midnight,” Furusa said during a break at the recent Creation Care Summit, a conference on climate change and environmental issues held at Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tenn.

“Before it hit, the electricity went off, so any warnings that had been given, nobody heard them. They were caught sleeping. The people were saying, ‘I found myself swept out of the house.’ They knew the cyclone was coming, but the history of the cyclones in the area was that the cyclones were never so severe.”

The scenario is similar to Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans and other cities along the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.

“Just as much as everyone knew Hurricane Katrina was coming, nobody knew it was going to be a Category 5, and they were used to just riding it out,” Furusa said. “They thought they could survive. In Kopa, they couldn’t see the dangers of the storm surge and the very high tropical storm associated with it.”

Rescue teams faced massive problems in providing initial assistance to the victims in Kopa.

“There was flooding. The bridges were torn, the roads were torn. Because of the terrain and the high rain totals, there was little that could be done immediately. These are mountains. A lot of water was flowing from below into the valley.”

As with most natural disasters, the cyclone has long term implications for a community dependent upon natural resources for its survival.

“The natural environment has been affected, so it affects their livelihoods,” she said. “Many of the things they depended on are no longer there.”

Furusa has a longstanding commitment to preserving the environment.

Dr. Furusa engages students and communities on creation care strategies such as tree-planting and waste recycling.“I’ve always been a person who loves nature,” she said. “Geography was my favorite subject in school because it dealt with nature. I’ve always been driven toward being a watchdog or a protector of the environment. And I love that and I teach that. Not that I want protection of the environment, per se, because I still believe that people have to access the resource in the environment, so I actually say I’m a conservationist.”

Furusa and the students at Africa University are studying the reasons for these weather-related disasters and how to minimize the future impact.

“The issue of natural disasters is a global problem,” she said. “We know this is related to climate variability and climate change because there are so many more cyclones of great intensity compared to before.

“It’s an issue of the whole global community. It was Africa yesterday. It was Louisiana another year. We don’t know where the next one will hit, but there are going to be more. The water in our oceans now have more heat, and that is going to cause a lot of tropical cyclones or typhoons or hurricanes propelling toward our continents.”

Furusa’s face lights up when she talks about the students at Africa University, which attracts young people from throughout the continent.

“Young people are coming together,” she said. “They’re taking all sorts of courses that aren’t necessarily in environmental studies. It’s so wonderful to have young people on our campus who are excited. We can share our commonalities and also our areas of conflicts and try to work around that. We have different views from the different students, different disciplines, that gives us a holistic approach. It all works together at the end of the day.

“They challenge me, because of their energy, to drive me higher. I’m just there to guide them.”

Cyclone Idai left deep scars on the landscape of Kopa-Chimanimani in Zimbabwe.How does Furusa respond to skeptics who say that climate change is not real?

“I would quote straight from the Bible and Thomas, the disciple who couldn’t believe Jesus had risen until he saw the scars on Jesus’ hands,” she said. “We have our doubting Thomases. Maybe they will believe one day when the disaster is right by their doorstep.”

Story by Calvin Gilbert, a freelancer writer and editor living in Nashville, TN.