By Charles Etukuri and Gerald Tenywa
Nearly half the inhabitants of Lujjabwa island on Lake Victoria have been rendered homeless after a powerful tornado descended from the clouds and swept over 75 shelters into the lake before daybreak on Thursday morning.
The extremely rare incident, that occurred at about 5:00am, amazed weather experts and islanders alike. Weather experts explained that such a tornado occurs on Lake Victoria once in five years and almost always falls on the water rather than land. That it has hit human settlements is a rare occurence.
A loud roar came from the heavens and a massive storm whirled towards the ground, waking up the islanders. Suddenly, it swept off the tinned and wooden shelters that dominate the island, leaving the occupants drenched.
For about an hour, the tornado blew off roofs, wood, tree branches and household items at the highway speed of a car, taking some of them miles into the water.
One of the survivors, Ibrahim Kasinde, who is the defence chairman of the area, still cannot understand how his family survived the tornado that flattened their home and blew it into the lake.
“It was a miracle. When the morning fury hit us, the wind carried the entire shelter into the lake, leaving us on the bed.
I do not have a place to live, but I am grateful because I still have my life. I do not know what to do next,” Kasinde said.
Out of about 800 occupants of the tiny Island near the border with Tanzania, over 350 have been displaced, according to the Uganda Red Cross (URC) officials who visited the island, soon after the disaster.
Lujjabwa is one of the 85 islands that form Kalangala district and is located in Mazinga sub-county.
According to eye witnesses, mattresses were also blown off the beds and clothes remained trapped on tree tops. Fallen trees and scattered debris littered the island. Some rooftops, timber, clothes and utensils floated on the water. Video footages and photos from Red Cross show the affected residents trying to search for anything salvageable.
Though there were no deaths, according to Red Cross and district officials, 75 shelters were totally uprooted and blown into the lake, 79 destroyed and 51 shelters partially damaged as the strong winds swept through the island. Property worth millions was also destroyed. Several trees were broken and property swept away.
A team from URC arrived at the Island on Thursday afternoon to assess the situation. According to an official of URC, Ibrahim Ssenyonga, the residents are in dire need of help. “The winds swept their shelters, food and property,” he said.
Kalangala district Chairman, Willy Lugoloobi, in an interview with Sunday Vision, said out of the total population of between 720-830 people, over 350 had been affected and were currently being sheltered at the Bijabwa Health Centre III and Co-op centre.
The Red Cross team is currently in Kampala mobilising nonfood items like tents, blankets and utensils to help residents rebuild their lives.
“We are appealing to the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness to help send food items to the affected people because their food was also swept into the lake,” said Lugoloobi.
Weather experts speak out
Officials from the Meteorological Department in Kampala confirmed to Sunday Vision that satellite images had detected the tornado, which lasted about 30 minutes.
Khalid Muwembe, the public relations officer at the Meteorological Department, explained that a tornado starts from the clouds like a whirlwind and then powerfully descends to the ground, sweeping away whatever it comes across. It has a narrow track, but is devastating.
“When it is moving it gains more strength. It becomes destructive as it encounters resistance. The winds in such an event can move at 100km per hour and die down after an encounter with trees and barriers like hills or both,” he says, adding that keeping natural vegetation remains one of the best ways of minimising its impact on Lake Victoria.
The local fishermen on Lake Victoria call it ekizimu (bad spirit) because of its devastating impact. However, they usually follow its track to hand-pick fish. This is because a tornado leaves fish in a state of confusion.
The Red Cross team said they were planning to consult with other stakeholders like the National Forestry Authority so that they could advise the residents on which strong tress to plant. “The entire island is rocky and we believe that if proper trees are planted they could acts as wind breakers,” said Ssenyonga.