REPORT 8 January 2017

In a report from the website, it has been revealed that natural disasters including storms and earthquakes caused $175 billion of damage in 2016, the highest level since 2012, according to German reinsurance giant Munich Re.

While the year saw a two-thirds increase in the financial impact of catastrophes around the world, casualties from natural disasters were far lower in 2016 than the previous year, at 8,700 deaths compared with 25,400.

Munich Re pointed to two earthquakes on the Japanese island of Kyushu in April and floods in China in June and July as the most devastating natural events, inflicting costs of $31 billion in Japan and $20 billion in China.

North America suffered its largest number of disasters since 1980, at 160 events.

October’s Hurricane Matthew was the worst in the region, causing 550 deaths in Haiti alone as well as $10.2 billion of damage.

Meanwhile Canada battled wildfires in May after spring heat-waves and droughts, costing around $4 billion, while summer brought serious flooding in the southern US to the tune of $10 billion.

And a series of storms across Europe in late May and early June brought flood damage costing a total of $6 billion, with flooding hitting Germany especially badly as well as the French capital Paris.

The April earthquakes on the Japanese island of Kyushu were the most devastating natural events of 2016, inflicting costs of $31 billion in Japan, according to Munich Re

Overall, floods accounted for 34 percent of losses—an “exceptional” figure compared with the average of 21 percent in the last 10 years, Munich Re pointed out.

“A look at the weather-related catastrophes of 2016 shows the potential effects of unchecked climate change,” said Peter Hoeppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research Unit.

But he noted that “individual events themselves can never be attributed directly to climate change.”

An example of the disasters quoted in the above report is the huge multi-fronted fire across Sir Lowry’s pass towards Grabouw in the Cape that has been raging since Tuesday. It is highly suspicious that 106 separate fires started in that 24 hours, and the likelihood of a natural cause for all of them is exceedingly slim.

A City of Cape Town report said that most were extinguished or contained before they could cause much damage, but a devastating mountain fire above Somerset West was still not fully under control, said JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security.

More than 120 firefighters, 12 fire engines and 10 water tankers battled the mountain vegetation fire on Tuesday and worked through the night on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain, in a strong southeasterly wind.

“The fire is not yet completely under control. Aerial and ground crew operations are still under way in high-risk areas of the Helderberg basin,” Smith said.

The fire forced the closure of the N2 and Sir Lowry’s Pass in both directions between Grabouw and Sir Lowry’s Pass Road.

“The N2 to Grabouw has since been reopened, while the entrance into Sir Lowry’s Pass Village on the N2 is closed intermittently depending on smoky conditions.”

The road to Bezweni Lodge, which is below the affected mountain slope, remained closed.

There were also fires on the slopes of Table Mountain above Victoria Road in Llandudno, a fire on De Waal Drive in Zonnebloem, and a fire near Big Bay Boulevard on the West Coast Road.

These destroyed large areas of vegetation but did not endanger lives or property. Smith said the Somerset West fire appeared to have destroyed three buildings, including the upper section of the lodge.

Theo Layne, Cape Town Fire and Rescue Spokesperson said, “Continuous assessment is being done to determine if we need more crew or if the crew that we have is sufficient and we just have to rotate them, in order to make sure that they don’t become dehydrated.”

“….. also the workload that is put on them is tremendous because it is a mountainous area, and they are travelling quite a bit up and down the mountain.”

Voluntary evacuations are under way, as the flames on the mountain reach residential areas.

Exhausted firefighters have worked 24 hour shifts containing the fires on all fronts, and the community have responded by delivering large quantities of drinking water and more interesting foodstuffs for the firefighters than the rations they are issued with, to keep their morale up.

Numbers of horses were evacuated from farms along the road to Sir Lowry’s Pass, with owners and helpers arriving uninvited with horse boxes to move the frightened animals. Some horses had to be walked out, because the general commotion made them too skittish to be boxed and transported.

And HAMNET was there. From early on Tuesday evening, HAMNET members joined the convoy of vehicles ready to start evacuating people whose houses were threatened on the pass.

It seems that by Wednesday evening, the fires were largely contained. But HAMNET was already busy on Table Mountain again, assisting with logistic management of tourist rescues. Landing zones had to be established for the AMS helicopters, some of the rescue teams had HAMNET members amongst them climbing to assist in rescues, and occasionally,  a second group had to be despatched to approach the mountain from a different direction, to gain access to the threatened parties.

Table Mountain and surrounds broke the record for rescues in 2016, with Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR) being involved in 170 rescues during 2016. WSAR consists of volunteers from the Mountain Club of SA, the Off Road Rescue Unit, HAMNET and Delta Search and Rescue, amongst many others. We assist the Emergency Medical Services in the Western Cape wherever and whenever they need us, and have a duty logistics manager on duty 24/7 to accept requests for help from HAMNET.

Fighting fires uses water, and local dams were severely depleted by the helicopters scooping up water in buckets to dump on the fires. The water levels in the Western Cape dams have dropped by an average of 4% this last week, while all other provinces are the same as last week.

However, the Karee Dam, which supplies Calvinia in the Northern Cape is absolutely dry, and only limited water is available from bore holes in the area. Our thoughts go out to the people in that area, who are parched by their very hot climate at the best of times.

This is Dave Reece reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.