Juneau pilot heads back to Africa for flood relief

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2000

On Friday, pilot Bob Reinaker will return to Mozambique and begin flying relief supplies to flooded villages and towns.

Reinaker, 50, a Juneau resident since 1976, had been house-sitting here for the past six weeks, and didn't intend to return to his job at Quelimane, Mozambique, with Air Serv International at all, he said Wednesday. Based in California, Air Serv was founded to fly for relief and development groups such as United Nations agencies.

``My contract was up, and I was going to be in Juneau for the summer,'' said Reinaker, who used to fly for Channel, Wings and other Juneau aviation firms.

When he left Mozambique on the east coast of southern Africa in January, ``nothing was happening.'' Air Serv had just three planes working. Suddenly, because a million people have been displaced by flooding, the company has nine planes and two helicopters at work.

Reinaker expects his first assignments will include flying 110-pound sacks of rice, corn and beans to areas isolated by flooding but accessible by air.

``It will be immediate relief - picking people off roofs,'' he said. After that, he may transport relief managers, aides and reporters, he said.

Reinaker has flown in Mozambique for six of the last seven years. For most of the year in the ``dry tropics,'' the sky is sunny and the climate, ``basically benign.'' Pilots never worry about icing, he said.

Mozambique has an annual rainy season that arrives in December and stays until midMarch. It's called ``cyclone'' season there, he said, and is equivalent to minor hurricanes - or what Juneau experiences in typical November storms accompanied by 60 mile-an-hour winds.

However, the average Mozambican lives in a stick-and-mud hut that doesn't stand up well to storms that can drop 3 inches of rain in an hour.

The storms that hit southern and central Mozambique over the weekend stranded thousands on bits of high ground, in trees and on rooftops.

The chief villain in the present disaster is the Limpopo River, Reinaker said. Mozambique is a narrow country, running north and south a thousand miles. It is bisected east and west by rivers such as the Limpopo, the Save and the Zambezi.

The rivers create fertile valleys suitable for farming. There are some commercial cotton farms, but the majority of residents maintain a subsistence way of life in villages of 300 to 400 people, where mud huts are flanked by large communal gardens. Rice, beans, an edible root called manioc and sweet potatoes are raised - sufficient to feed the community with a surplus for market.

The mud huts are usually only an inch or so above flood plain, and most people cannot swim. If they do, there are crocodiles and hippos to contend with. A couple of feet of warm water might seem no obstacle to Americans, but can easily isolate a village, Reinaker said.

``It's a fearful thing for them. It's a situation of panic,'' he said. ``Even if the water comes up a foot or two, they have to evacuate. Usually they can hike to higher ground, but this storm is more than that.''

Floods have also affected larger towns, such as Chokwe, a city of about 40,000 about 125 miles north of the capital, Maputo.

There is no shortage of food, but distribution is a problem. Bridges along the one paved road that runs north from Maputo have been destroyed by the flood.

``You can drive to where a bridge is out, and then there might be people sitting 200 yards away. But getting to them is a problem,'' Reinaker said.

Floods are common, but not to this extent, he said. Storms blow in from the Indian Ocean, pass over Madagascar and deposit torrential rain at the headwaters of the Limpopo and Zambezi in other countries, such as Zimbabwe and South Africa. From those high points, the water floods down into Mozambique, he said.

Thousands are feared dead in the floods that have devastated this country since the beginning of February.

The U.S. government approved $10 million in aid - $3 million of which will hire additional aircraft to deliver the relief, U.S. Embassy spokesman Robert Loftis said Wednesday.

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