Anger Mounts As Kenyans Left Homeless and Searching for Loved Ones Swept Away in Floods | PhotosVideos

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Larry Madowo and Laura Paddison, CNN
Kenya Flooding (Luis Tato-AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)
Kenya Flooding (Luis Tato-AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

*Mai Mahiu, Kenya (CNN) — When Julia Wanjiku put her son Isaac to bed last Sunday after a day celebrating his third birthday, she didn’t realize she was also saying goodbye.

In the early hours of Monday morning, Wanjiku awoke after hearing screams from her neighbors. A ferocious river of muddy water had blown through a blocked tunnel and was swept into the town of Mai Mahiu, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. As the water hit, her partner tried to hold on to their son but was overwhelmed — Isaac was swept away.

“We still don’t know where our son is,” Wanjiku told CNN. She was among the survivors gathering at Ngeya Girls High School in Mai Mahiu on Tuesday. Supported by her mother and her aunt, she wept as she said she was at least grateful she survived. Isaac’s father was too devastated to speak.

The flooding in Mai Mahui has claimed the lives of at least 52 people, 18 of whom were children.

It’s a tragedy echoed across swaths of Kenya, including Nairobi and parts of the famous Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, after weeks of intensely heavy rainfall triggered flash floods that have killed at least 210 people, left more than 90 missing, and displaced 165,500.

Kenya is used to heavy rain at this time of year — its long rainy season runs from March until May — but this has been on a scale not seen for years.

Over just two days at the start of May, more than half a month’s rain fell on parts of the country.

Satellite images from the county of Garissa show waters spreading well beyond the banks of the swollen River Tana, turning land usually green with vegetation into muddy brown swamps.

Experts say the rain has been intensified by a mix of two natural weather patterns — El Niño and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, when warmer waters are pushed west across the Indian Ocean — as well as the underlying trend of human-caused global warming.

Kenya Flooding (Luis Tato-AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)
Kenya Flooding (Luis Tato-AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Despite the huge toll the floods have already taken, the worst may be yet to come as rain keeps falling onto already saturated land and swollen rivers.

“Meteorological reports paint a dire picture,” Kenyan President William Ruto said Friday. The country is also braced for the impacts of what would be its first cyclone, Hidaya, as it moves toward the coast of neighboring Tanzania. Life has been upturned for many.

On Thursday, Kenya’s interior cabinet secretary, Kithure Kindiki, announced 178 dams and reservoirs “may spill over any time,” ordering people living near them to leave their homes within 24 hours or risk being forcibly removed. About 100,000 people are affected, said government spokesperson Isaac Mwaura.

Schools, which have been closed during the flooding, will remain shut “until further notice,” Ruto announced Friday. Some are being used as shelters for those displaced. People in informal settlements are particularly hard hit, said Mark Laichena, chief strategy officer at Kenyan grassroots organization ​​Shining Hope for Communities, which works in urban slums.

“Their clean water has been contaminated, healthcare is scarce, and their food supply has been washed away or spoiled,” he told CNN. “These floods are on a scale of destruction that we haven’t seen in recent years.”

From a multi-year drought to deadly floods

The government has set up more than 50 camps across the country to provide shelter for those displaced and evacuated, and it plans to increase this number, Mwaura said. It’s also distributing food and other essential supplies. Foreign assistance is coming, too. The United Arab Emirates has promised 80 tons of food aid.

But as the scale of the catastrophe widens, anger is growing over the pace of the government’s response and a lack of information about what happens to those forced to flee.

Human Rights Watch, a non-profit headquartered in New York, criticized the government’s action in a statement on Thursday.

It said the government had “failed to put in place a timely national response plan,” despite warnings from the Kenya Meteorological Department as early as May 2023 that El Niño would intensify Kenya’s rainy seasons.

“The unfolding devastation highlights the government’s obligation to prepare for and promptly respond to the foreseeable impacts of climate change and natural disasters,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

As the world warms, while the overall volume of rain may fall in East Africa, the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events is expected to increase, as a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, making dramatic floods more likely.

Heavy rains have also affected other East African countries including Tanzania, where at least 155 people have died.

Mwaura pushed back strongly on criticisms of the government, saying it was doing its best with the resources it had. “You can never be quite fully prepared for these humanitarian crises,” he said.

He stressed the conversation should really be one about climate change, and who is most responsible. “Western countries are wreaking havoc” by warming the earth and African countries are paying the price, he said, despite accounting for less than 4% of global levels of planet-heating pollution.

Kenya Flooding (Simon Maina-AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)
Kenya Flooding (Simon Maina-AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Kenya, a country firmly on the frontlines of the climate crisis, has swung from a devastating, multi-year drought — which scientists said was made at least 100 times more likely by climate change — into deadly flooding.

“When people are still reeling from one extreme weather event, it makes them highly vulnerable to another,” said Joyce Kimutai, a researcher at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute.

This vulnerability is starkly clear in Mai Mahiu. The town is still littered with remnants of the disaster: tangled heaps of furniture, twisted sheets of metal ripped off the roofs of houses, SUVs flung upside down and wedged into the ground. They are still trying to pull bodies from the mud.

The people here are mostly subsistence farmers and market traders. Many, like Githukuri Makau, a goat herder who is sheltering at Ngeya Girls High School, escaped the flooding with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing.

Makau said his house was flattened in the floods. He doesn’t know what he’ll do when the school reopens and he needs to find a new place to stay. “I’m now left destitute,” he said, “there’s nowhere to go, there’s no one to turn to.”

Larry Madowo reported from Mai Mahui and Laura Paddison reported from London. CNN’s Louis Mian, Allison Chinchar and Mary Gilbert contributed to reporting

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